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British Museum
Museum Street, Bloomsbury, London, UK
associated engineer
Not known
Buro Happold
date  1823, 1826, 1847, 1854 - 1857, 1998 - 2000
era  Georgian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ299818
ICE reference number  HEW 304
The British Museum in central London is the world's first national public museum. It opened on this site in Montagu House (now demolished) on 15th January 1759. The present neo-classical building, designed by architect Robert Smirke dates from the first quarter of the 19th century.
The museum began with a bequest of 71,000 items collected by the Irish naturalist and physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) — after whom Sloane Square is named. His will offered the items to King George II for the nation in return for £20,000 for his heirs. This done, the British Museum was established by Act of Parliament on 7th June 1753.
Montagu House, a 17th century mansion that stood on the site until 1845, was purchased to house the exhibits and the museum opened to the public on 15th January 1759. Among its famous acquisitions are the Rosetta Stone (1802) and the Parthenon Sculptures (1816), also known as the Elgin Marbles.
In 1823, King George IV donated his father’s library to the museum. This led to the construction of the present neo-classical quadrangular building, designed by Robert Smirke (1781-1867), who was knighted in 1832. It includes the King’s Library (completed in 1826) on the east side, and the south wing and entrance portico (completed in 1847).
The 90m long King’s Library is notable for the large cast iron beams spanning 12.5m, with open webs to reduce dead load and integral sockets for secondary timber beams.
The famous circular Reading Room is located in the centre of the quadrangle, and is crowned by a magnificent domed roof whose form was suggested by the principal librarian (later Sir, Anthony Panizzi). It was designed by Sydney Smirke (1798-1877), younger brother of Robert.
The dome is 42.7m in diameter, with a skeleton of 20 cast iron ribs springing from its base and united at the top by a circular ring beam surmounted by a lantern 12.2m in diameter. The main ribs are 32.3m high. Brick arches span between the ribs above the glazed areas. The dome is supported on 20 cast iron columns encased in concrete — one of the earliest uses of concrete cladding. The circular wall between the columns is non-structural. The work was completed in 1857 at a cost of £150,000.
The dome of the Reading Room was bomb damaged in 1940 during World War II, but a structural examination in 1963 found that the ironwork was still sound.
The British Museum building has housed more than archaeological exhibits. In the 1880s, the natural history items were moved to a then new building in South Kensington for lack of space in Bloomsbury. This new building became the Natural History Museum. Between 1973 and 1997, the museum was part of the British Library, which is why it had a Reading Room. The books are now in a new building at St Pancras, including the original contents of the King's Library.
In March 1998, the newly emptied book stacks in the Reading Room were demolished and work began on refurbishing the room for use as exhibition space. The 0.8 hectare central courtyard that encircles the Reading Room — an area known as the Great Court — was cleared of various ancillary buildings and converted into Europe’s largest covered public space. The architect for these works was Foster and Partners and the structural engineer Buro Happold.
The Great Court is covered by a spectacular glazed geodetic steel lattice roof. It comprises 5,200 members, welded to 1,800 steel nodes, and carries 3,312 glass panels. It contains 478 tonnes of steel and 315 tonnes of glass. The set-out for it was complicated because the centre of the Reading Room is 5m north of the intersecting diagonals of the courtyard, rather than at the cross. The work was funded by the Millennium Commission and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Court opened to the public in 2000.
Restoration of the King’s Library was completed in 2003, as part of the museum’s 250th anniversary celebrations.
The British Museum is owned and run by its Trustees. It has always been, and still is, free to enter the main galleries. Nearly six million people a year visit the collections.
Architect (1823-47): Sir Robert Smirke
Architect (Reading Room, 1854-7): Sydney Smirke
Architect (Great Court 2000): Foster and Partners
Main contractor (Reading Room 1857): Baker and Fielder
Cast iron work (King's Library 1825): Foster Rastrick & Co
Reading Room ventilation system (1857): Haden and Son, Trowbridge
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH Lond

British Museum