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Beautiful Buildings: The British Museum

The British Museum has a hidden gem that can only be seen from the inside.
The British Museum encloses a hidden gem that can only be seen from the inside.

Contained within the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London are 8 million permanent pieces of art, culture and history concerning everything British. Yet, architecturally, the museum is designed in an anything but British way. Built in Greek Revival style, based on the great temples of Ancient Greece, the British Museum captivates all who visit. However, what can be discovered inside is more than out of the ordinary.

The original Greek façade building was masterminded by Sir Robert Smirke, with its 44 columns similar to those of its Ancient Greek temple ancestors. Construction began in 1823, but the building itself only came to fruition nearly one hundred years after the museum was set up by Sir Hans Sloane, the benefactor of all the original exhibits. Sloane wanted to keep his collection of goods and pieces of history intact and at his death set up the British Museum.

The Greek Revival style of the main entrance to The British Museum.
The Greek Revival style of the main entrance to the British Museum.

The south-facing building was flanked by the west, east and opposite north wings. The building was completed in 1852 and within the wings there are galleries for classical sculpture and Assyrian antiquities as well as residences for staff. The Greek Revival style was very popular in the 1750s as western colonies “rediscovered” Greece. The frame of the building was made from cast iron and filled with London stock brick, yet cleverly the sections that the public saw were covered in a layer of beautiful Portland stone. The large steps up to the entrance and looming pillars signified importance and were intended to convey a sense of wonder to all who entered and explored the mysterious and intriguing exhibits within the museum doors.

The building of this ever-expanding site was a rather family affair, with the Weston Hall being designed by Sydney Smirke, who took over from his brother, Sir Robert Smirke, the original architect. All of the buildings in the British Museum have stunning ceiling decoration and the Weston Hall is no exception. The bright colours on its ceiling were borrowed from classical Greek buildings, again encompassing the Greek theme evident throughout the Museum.

The brilliant British Museum Reading Room, featured in many Hollywood classics.
The brilliant British Museum Reading Room, featured in many Hollywood classics.

However the true heart of the museum is the Reading Room, which stands in the centre of the Great Court, located behind the entrance building. Built after the original façade and wings in 1857, the book-keeper prior to the build had the idea of a large grand circle library that filled the empty courtyard at the centre of the museum. The idea caught on and was soon built, holding 25 miles of shelving and 3 miles of book casing. The beautiful room has a fantastic height and openness about it that really makes the space come to life as one walks into the building. Just by looking up the scale of the building takes one’s breath away.

A unique combination of the old a new. Two structures built 150 years apart, seamlessly merging into one.
A unique combination of the old and new. Two structures built 150 years apart seamlessly merging into one.

In line with the site’s constant expansion, in 1997 work began again to modernise an already beautiful place. In 2000, Europe’s largest public covered square was constructed over the Great Court, where the Reading Room was built in that once unused courtyard over 150 years previously. Designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners, the roof is of glass and steel construction, built by an Austrian steelwork company. Consisting of 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass, the attention to detail was a priority and it mimics the detail that can be seen throughout the whole museum.

Some would say that the addition of the 21st Century roof ruined the aesthetic of an already magnificent collection of buildings and grounds. However, I firmly believe in the merging of the old and new and that modern architecture doesn’t just “work” with older styles but it enhances, improves and can function with that of the past. Furthermore, completely unique and wonderful spaces can be created – just like at the British Museum.