London’s British Museum reopened this week after the latest lockdown just in time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the unveiling of its Great Court on Sunday.
The space, which was opened by the Queen on 6 December 2000, has become one of the most recognisable museum interiors in the world. It was designed by Foster + Partners and 113 million people have now walked under the famous glass roof.
The court has hosted numerous school visits, tourists from all over the world, couples on dates, and even large protests.
To mark the anniversary, Museums Journal has gathered views from a range of people about the impact and influence of the Great Court on museum architecture and design, as well as audiences.
“The Great Court is the first wow factor visitors encounter. You can see their faces light up as soon as they step into it, often immediately looking for the best angle get a snap of the glass roof. On late nights, its dim-lit ambience still draws in many a couple, whether on their first or hundredth date. It’s a uniquely attractive space.”
“I think what is so extraordinary about the Great Court is the speed at which it became an icon. Glazing the central courtyard of a London museum wasn’t in itself a radical idea – Rick Mather had delivered similar projects at the National Maritime Museum and the Wallace Collection during the previous year – but the BM seemed to gain so much more. It was instantly transformed from a warren of dark classical rooms into a place filled with space and light. The Great Court immediately became THE visual signature of the BM – even more so than the famous portico that stands over the forecourt.
I feel it’s the purity of the design and the sheer scale of it that makes people gasp – but it’s also a space that reveals its secrets slowly. The Reading Room prevents any long views, and all of the visitor amenities – the shops, toilets, cafes and so on – are hidden away from the main sightlines. Plus it has an acoustic that amplifies sounds like speech and footsteps so that they seem to come from all sides. I worked for several years at the BM and had the chance to see its many personalities. For every hundred conversations with frustrated visitors who couldn’t find the loo, there would be something truly memorable, like Day of the Dead in 2009, where the whole place would come to life with sound and colour and energy.
Many museums have trodden a similar path since – from Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam to the Jewish Museum in Berlin to the new National Museum of Natural History in Manila – some arguably building better, more versatile, spaces than the Great Court. But I’m not sure any has gained quite so much from the process as the British Museum.”
The unveiling of the Great Court in 2000 coincided with the opening of a group of other remodelled museums, all seeking to find ways of expanding their real estate without breaking through the perimeter wall; it meant they had move internally. Obvious local examples are the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (1999) and the Wallace Collection (2000). No doubt they had all seen how the underground courtyard created by the Louvre Pyramid (1989) had released space for those now essential museum activities of corporate entertainment, membership recruitment, audio guides, shopping and eating.
They also could see that it could unblock their circulation like a carotid endarterectomy, something that the British Museum, with over 6.5m annual visitors, needed very badly. Before the opening of the Great Court, navigating across the site was a nightmare because of the core obstacle of the Reading Room and its courtyard.
The fishnet roof is a triumph of engineering and construction, although the blinding whiteness of the space grabs light out of the surrounding galleries, unfairly exaggerating their lower lux levels; and Smirke’s beautiful 1857 Reading Room, stripped of its books and purpose, will forever be a bit of a lost soul.
The Great Court is the manifestation of the tension between the need for financial independence and cultural reflection. Its strategically placed but unnoticed monolithic sculptures hold their noses as they seek clear space above the scatter of kiosks, cafes and ticket desks; the Great Court treads a delicate path between the overused station concourse and the grand foyer it tries to be.
“I am delighted that the British Museum can reopen its doors in time for the 20th anniversary of the Great Court. This spectacular glass-roofed courtyard has welcomed 113 million people since the turn of the millennium, and it is the glorious starting point for nearly every visitor. It is only fitting that this space, which transformed the visitor experience of this great institution, should be welcoming people once again on its 20th birthday.
This is the most photographed area in the museum and it’s always a wonderful moment walking in towards the light. We’ve very deliberately kept it as the beginning of the new visitor route in these socially distanced times so people can still experience that feeling. The British Museum, together with Fosters + Partner, created a unique public space that is going to be enjoyed for many years to come.”
"This was a transformative moment for the BM. The museum had always been grand but felt a bit drab and unwelcoming as soon as you walked into the entrance hall, which had lost its bright original colour scheme. Foster’s opening up of the previously inaccessible Great Court provided a dramatic and spacious centrepiece where visitors could start their visit, with cafes, shops and new exhibition spaces all covered in a giant version of his Reichstag dome in Berlin.
It meant the BM caught up at last with the imaginative underground extension of the Louvre in the 1980s, which was topped by IM Pei’s controversial glass pyramid entrance in the central courtyard. The BM’s Great Court certainly led the way for other lottery projects which reshaped crusty old Victorian institutions such as the Ashmolean in the 21st century."
“Modernist front-end interventions commissioned by historic national museums are now familiar to help unpick issues of customer services, circulation, and at the same time provide a powerful sense of arrival. The Great Court has of course achieved this with a typically assured and sensitive touch that we would expect from Foster + Partners. Scale, light and materials are all handled impeccably and orientations are clear.
Often the success of any such architectural typology is for the users to think that it was an obvious and straightforward solution, but it is not always so easy. I would cite the disconnected new entrance of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the insensitive statement of Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
If I were to provide a critique, I have always felt that the cafes are unfriendly and bleak, and it was surprising for Norman Foster to celebrate the fact that every sheet of glass in the roof is different.
Having really enjoyed the challenge of designing two exhibitions in the Reading Room, I have always been disappointed that the space, as the heart of the museum, has not been designated a spectacular permanent function to justify its status and location. Now there’s a competition in waiting for the creative community.”
“The Great Court, and the stunning Reading Room that sits within it, are wonderful examples of how sensitive but modern intervention into historical museum settings can transform spaces and make them live on for future generations. The refurbished heating and ventilation system for the Reading Room is an update on the original design, reusing the ‘spider’ ventilation chamber beneath the room.
This approach was an inspiration when I began the design for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). We searched for and found original ventilation tunnels and trenches that we connected to modern plant to supply fresh air to all parts of the galleries. We embraced the simplicity of the past, delivering a closely-controlled gallery environment without using cooling or humidification; modern controls enabling us to design a breakthrough ‘passive’ system that comes with big energy savings.
In some ways this solution, and that for the Reading Room, based on providing a controlled supply of fresh air, may point to the way ahead. We have been working with the V&A on staying Covid-19 safe; in simple terms, ensuring good levels of fresh air throughout the museum. In the future, ventilation systems that can deliver fresh air intelligently, in an energy efficient manner, while maintaining comfortable conditions for objects and people, should be the norm.”