Stoddart, Simon, Malone, Caroline, Antiquity
On 6 December 2000 the latest and, in our opinion, the greatest of cultural monuments in London to mark the millennium was opened by the Queen: the Great Court of the British Museum. The formula of this architectural work by Foster has similarities to the Tate Modern project already discussed in ANTIQUITY (74:457-9). This is the reworking and enhancing of an existing structure in the cause of culture through the preservation and development of a recovered voluminous space. Furthermore, both are the product of a portfolio of funding (134 million [pounds sterling] for the Tate; more than 100 million [pounds sterling] for the British Museum) from the lottery, state and private donors. More than any other millennium project in Britain, the British Museum building represents a welcome Europeanization of cultural space adapted in distinctive style to the Atlantic climate which has prevailed over the last few months in this country. The Louvre erected an intrusive pyramid. The British Museum has covered the entire courtyard. The spatial articulation and flow of visitors within the British Museum has been transformed. The court is uncluttered and occupied by only a few, selected pieces of sculpture, such as the Cnidos lion, allowing flexible unconstrained movement for the visitor. Access is now possible to the ground and upper floor galleries by means of this newly revealed interior, which additionally provides access to knowledge and food. The full effect has been achieved in superb architectural style, through a soaring glass and steel roof, encircling the round Reading Room. Here is a heart for the museum, open until late in the evening, providing a new museum ambience, a new narrative whose telling will be followed with interest in these pages. The Court has the potential to become a nodal point comparable to Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, Waterloo and other crossroads of the city of London.
Further space has been realized below the floor of the courtyard and within the former Reading Room of the British Library. The Education centre includes two auditoria and five multi-purpose rooms which will support activities, particularly for younger visitors who now number some 250,000 every year. The famous Reading Room, frequented by Marx, has become a reference library and a place of entry into the Internet resources of the museum. The 25,000-volume, 300-seat library provides open access to publications relevant to the civilizations and societies represented in the collections of the Museum. The COMPASS (Collections Multimedia Public Access System) IT system offers an explanatory database of the principal collections from 50 computer terminals. This same service has been extended to an external audience through the web (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/ compass). The system will be expanded in the course of time but already covers a range of information: for example, plans of the galleries showing the location of selected objects, bibliographic information (especially from the reference library), in-depth information on displayed objects, links with the UK National Curriculum, links to other comparable databases and colour prints. In an elliptical extension to the Reading Room, connected by encircling stair-cases rising from the Great Court, temporary exhibition space has been provided in the Great Court gallery. This has opened with an exhibition on the Human Image, drawing from a wide selection of the cultures represented in the museum's collections. (For colour pictures from both the Human Image exhibition and the new Great Court, see pages 9 & 12). The long-standing temporary exhibition space will continue to be used for other displays such as Gladiators.
The Great Court opening is part of an ongoing programme leading up to the 250th anniversary in 2003 of the museum's foundation. The approach to the distinctive colonnaded facade of the museum has been improved by lawns, paving, gravel and outdoor seating. …