The British Museum as we know it today opened its doors in the mid-19th century, after being designed and built in a vast and imposing Classical Greek style by Sir Robert Smirke (see above). More precisely, it is designed following the Greek Ionic Order, taking inspiration for its capitals, bases and pediment from a number of ancient Greek temples. Though the building appears to be built in stone, this is a somewhat deceptive device – it is faced in Portland stone but this serves to disguise its brick and iron structural frame. The whole is raised on a concrete bed, using what was at that time cutting edge building technology. It is the beautiful simplicity and rationality of the design that characterises the building, making it one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in Britain and Smirke’s defining work. The museum can be classed as part of a new phase of public buildings erected in the Victorian era with philanthropic intentions, owned not by Church or King, but by the nation. It aimed to collect a vast array of artefacts from all over the world, and to this day The British Museum retains its public-serving ethos, with free entry to all and a permanent collection of over 8 million works from all over the world.
One of the museum’s most famous artefacts are The Parthenon Sculptures, sometimes referred to as ‘The Elgin Marbles’. These ancient Greek marble sculptures were once upheld on the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens, built in the 5th century BC. Their fame comes partly due to the controversy surrounding their acquisition by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805, and the constant debate over where these important sculptures should be displayed – half of the architectural statues from the temple are located in London, and the other half in Athens.
Aside from its collections and exhibitions, the Museum should be visited for its breathtaking architecture alone. In 2000, a project to reinvent its inner courtyard space was completed by Foster and Partners architectural practice, which was highly acclaimed, winning awards such as the 2003 Royal Institute of British Architects award. Originally this two-acre space was a garden, but shortly after Smirke’s new building was completed, a Reading Room designed by Smirke’s brother Sydney Smirke was built in the centre of the courtyard. In a style much like Oxford’s cylindrical Radcliffe Camera, it is lined with bookshelves and though a Reader’s Pass was originally required for entry, it is now open to the public. The Great Court, as the courtyard is now called, connects all the museum galleries, roofed by a stunning curved glass canopy.