British Museum gears up for radical modernisation project - Museums Association

British Museum gears up for radical modernisation project

Strategic masterplan aims to redisplay collections and overhaul building
British Museum, Great Court, London
British Museum, Great Court, London Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

New details have emerged of the impending radical overhaul of the British Museum’s building and displays.

The so-called “Rosetta Project” will see the London landmark comprehensively redisplay its permanent galleries, as well as modernising the deteriorating fabric and infrastructure of its 170-year-old building.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the project is forecast to cost around £1bn, with the museum’s new chairman, the former UK chancellor George Osborne, tasked with raising funds from a mix of private and public sources. It is likely to be the most expensive museum refurbishment in the UK to date – although a museum spokesman said the budget and timeline reported by the newspaper were “unfamiliar”.

The museum recruited a curator last year to lead its Reimagining the British Museum scheme, which aims to give greater prominence to parts of the collections that are currently under-represented in its displays, including those from Africa, Oceania and South America.

The curator is tasked with developing curatorial briefs for new suites of permanent galleries, as well delivering pilot projects to test and evaluate different collaborative methods and narrative approaches. The temporary post is currently due to run until mid-2023.

The Rosetta Project will also see the museum replace its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and improve its environmental sustainability, as well as reopening its circular Reading Room, which has been closed to the public since 2017.

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Outgoing chairman Richard Lambert wrote last year that the British Museum is “entering one of the most exciting phases in its long history”.

“The transformation will restore the fabric and infrastructure of Bloomsbury, and at the same time rethink the permanent galleries in such a way as to give more prominence to parts of the collection which are at present under-represented in the public spaces, and to make it easier to compare and contrast the different cultures around the world and across the millennia,” he said in the institution’s 2020-21 annual report.

“At its heart, the project will pioneer new ways of working in partnership with our networks, nationally and internationally, to expand the museum’s impact and outreach. No other museum in the world has the capacity to help us understand our common humanity in this way. It’s a thrilling project that will take some years to complete and will require financial and intellectual support from both the public and private sectors.”  

A museum spokesman said: “We are developing a strategic masterplan to transform the British Museum for the future. It will involve actively renovating our historic buildings and estate including our infrastructure and galleries.

“We will improve our visitor experience and this work will provide the collection with a new and powerful presence so the British Museum can continue to tell the stories of the world well into the future.

“Our board maintain strategic oversight of this important project. We are at an early stage of development and can confirm that as the project develops we will be engaging with our partners, stakeholders and benefactors. We aim to secure the optimal mix of investment from public and private sources.”

The museum has been in the international spotlight this week as it opens its long-awaited blockbuster, the World of Stonehenge, its first ever temporary exhibition on Neolithic culture. Many objects in the show have never been displayed before, including a prehistoric chalk drum buried alongside three children in East Yorkshire, which has only just been made public after its discovery in 2015.

The World of Stonehenge runs 17 February to 17 July and will feature in the March/April issue of Museums Journal

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