British Museum – Queen Elizabeth Great Court

On 6 December 2000 the British Museum’s Queen Elizabeth Great Court will be opened by Her Majesty with an inaugural exhibition. Which will open to the public the following day: The Human Image in the Joseph Hotung Gallery, exploring how the depiction of the body across world cultures – from pre-history to the present – has been central to the communication of ideas.

There has been a lot of controversy over the restoration of the British Museum’s great courtyard, blighted by a centrepiece portico construction in a mismatched cheaper French limestone which had been passed off as genuine Portland stone. Its brilliant white against the surrounding fawn stonework has appalled British Heritage and other experts saying it devalues one of Britain’s most important monuments. But another view is that all new stone will look lighter than the old and that it will weather in time. Gary Weston 72 a Canadian billionaire – who is not averse to travelling by bus – is the man who invented Wagon Wheels biscuits when in charge of a biscuit factory in Slough has given a record £20m to the British Museum to allow it to complete its ambitious Great Court project.

This money will allow Norman Foster’s scheme to integrate the museum’s central courtyard and Reading Room (restoring it to its former glory using 12,000 books of gold leaf) – a space the size of Wembley Stadium – into its galleries. You could certainly say Garfield was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” (as the saying goes) as Silver Spoon sugar – to go with Twinning tea! – Amongst other things was part of Associated British Foods built up by his grandfather Willard Garfield Weston.

The new Great Court with its glass giving plenty of light and throwing reflections on to the nearby windows of the Reading Room and surrounding galleries has done away with the fusty, dingy look of old. The steel and glass roof studded with 3,312 separate triangle panels all different, stretching across the emptiness and the blue-green tint, even on a dreary December afternoon, enhances the sky beyond. The complex also includes the Glory Education Centre, the Sainsbury African Galleries, a restaurant, a café and museum shop.

There is also the renovated ceiling of the Great Hall. Hanging there are two globes ceiling lights, copies of the 1870s originals. Until that time the British Museum had only opened during daylight because gaslight would have damaged its antiquities, so the museum ordered an early set of carbon arc lights from Siemens in Germany.


Verinha Ottoni.


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