The core of today’s building, the four main wings of the British Museum, was designed in the nineteenth century. Other important architectural developments include the round Reading Room with its domed ceiling and the Norman Foster designed Great Court which opened in 2000.
The core of today’s building was designed by the architect Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867) in 1823. It was a quadrangle with four wings: the north, east, south and west wings.
The building was completed in 1852. It included galleries for classical sculpture and Assyrian antiquities as well as residences for staff.
Smirke designed the building in the Greek Revival style, which emulated classical Greek architecture. Greek features on the building include the columns and pediment at the South entrance.
This style had become increasingly popular since the 1750s when Greece and its ancient sites were ‘rediscovered’ by western Europeans.
The building was constructed using up-to-the-minute 1820s technology. Built on a concrete floor, the frame of the building was made from cast iron and filled in with London stock brick. The public facing sections of the building were covered in a layer of Portland stone.
In 1853, the quadrangle building won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal.
The King’s Library
The King’s Library was the first wing of the Smirke design to be built and was completed in 1827.
South entrance and Museum forecourt
The external architecture of the Museum was designed to reflect the purpose of the building. The monumental South entrance, with its stairs, colonnade and pediment, was intended to reflect the wondrous objects housed inside.
The design of the columns has been borrowed from ancient Greek temples, and the pediment at the top of the building is a common feature of classical Greek architecture.
The east and west residences (to the left and right of the entrance) have a more modest exterior.
This is an example of mid-nineteenth century domestic architecture and reflects the domestic purpose of these wings. They housed the Museum’s employees, who originally lived on site.
The Weston Hall was designed by Sydney Smirke, who took over from his brother, Sir Robert Smirke, in 1845.
The patterns and colours on the ceiling of the Weston Hall were borrowed from classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated.
The electric lamps in the entrance hall are replicas of the original lighting lamps in the Museum. The Museum was the first public building to be electrically lit.
A £20 million donation from the Weston Foundation enabled the restoration of the hall in 2000.
The Reading Room, built in 1857, stands at the heart of the Museum, in the centre of the Great Court.
The White Wing, facing Montague Street, was designed by the architect Sir John Taylor (1833–1912) and constructed 1882–5. It was designed in the same style as the quadrangle building.
The Museum had again been looking to expand and a bequest made by William White (who died in 1823) to enable building works became available after the death of his widow.
White had two requests about the design of the building: that it had a monumental entrance (the steps which run up to the entrance) and an inscription (which is above the doorway). These can both be seen from Montague Street.
King Edward VII galleries
The King Edward VII galleries, designed by Sir John Burnet (1859–1939), were originally intended to be part of a larger development at the north side of the Museum.
The design of these galleries and north entrance are predominantly marked by imperialistic features and draw on Roman rather than Greek characteristics.
Imperial features include the royal coat of arms, above the entrance to the gallery, and sculptures of crowns, lions’ heads and coats of arms of Edward VII on the stonework above the north entrance.
The north entrance was never originally intended to be a public entrance. Instead this entrance and gallery were meant to face a long avenue which would be part of a victory parade route. The saluting gallery, a reminder of this grand scheme, can be seen above the north entrance.
The foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1907 and the building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914.
The Duveen gallery
The construction of a new gallery for the Parthenon sculptures was funded by Sir Joseph (later Lord) Duveen in 1931. The architect was the American, John Russell Pope (1874–1937), who also designed the National Gallery in Washington.
The gallery was completed in 1939 but, because of damage during the Second World War, it was not opened until 1962.
Designed by Foster and Partners, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court opened in 2000.
The courtyard had been a lost space since 1857. The re-design of the Great Court meant that this hidden space could be seen again.
The design of the Great Court was loosely based on Foster’s concept for the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany. A key aspect of the design was that with every step in the Great Court the vista changed and allowed the visitor a new view on their surroundings.
Work on the Great Court's magnificent glass and steel roof began in September 1999. The canopy was designed and installed by computer. It was constructed out of 3,312 panes of glass, no two of which are the same.
At two acres, the Great Court increased public space in the Museum by forty per cent, allowing visitors to move freely around the main floor for the first time in 150 years.