Ooh, Interesting! – The Fascinating Facts of the British Museum’s Great Court

August 21, 2015

The British Museum is a remarkable venue, adored the world over for its incredible exhibits and artefacts. Indeed, it was recently listed by Lonely Planet at number 15 in their list of must-see destinations in the world and houses some of the globe’s most precious statues and pieces within its vast collection. But next time you set foot inside the museum, we urge you to look up, for the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court (to give the full name) that you are greeted with upon entry is another feat of human achievement that often goes unappreciated.

The first thing you should know about the *deep breath* Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is that it was originally intended to be a garden. Way back in 1852 though, the Reading Room and a number of other books were incorporated into the space, with the Library department ultimately taking residence within its walls. When the British Museum’s Library department was relocated to the British Library at St Pancras in 1997, the Great Court was able to be opened up to the public, with Lord Foster winning the brief.

Part of Lord Foster’s design (whom you may know from being the architect behind other famous venues including The Gherkin) was to incorporate a number of triangles into the roof, allowing the space to truly be seen again for the first time since 1857. Loosely based on a concept for the Reichstag in Germany, the canopy of the room utilises 3,312 panes of glass separated by steel, each one a different size. Yes, that’s right. Pieced together by a computer, this approach allows members of the public to walk around the vast two acre space and experience a new view on their surroundings with each and every step.

At a cost of £100 million, repurposing the space for public use was no easy task. It’s all well and good opening up the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court to allow more visitors into the venue, but when combining this with the sunlight streaming through all that glass, it’s fair to assume that the area would become uncomfortably warm. The solution? Well, not only are there 3,312 panes of glass in the roof, but there are also 3,312 coloured discs, each one designed to absorb the heat of the sun whilst simultaneously allowing the light to penetrate to the floor.

So next time you enter the British Museum expecting to be wowed by the Rosetta Stone and various statues from the Egyptian and Roman empires, be sure to look up and consider that the building itself is also a sterling monument to human achievement and potential.

Bonus Fact: The centrepiece of the museum is the magnificent white, cylindrical structure which now houses temporary exhibitions. For just under 150 years, this was the British Museum’s Reading Room, one of the few 19th Century structures open to the public within London that had heating. As such, many notable people enjoyed to read within its walls, including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx, who visited every week for 30 years and quite possibly wrote the Communist manifesto Das Kapital on the premises. 



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By Henry Fosdike