Then in the mid-1990's, after years of government neglect, Britain's major cultural institutions were unexpectedly offered a share of profits from a new national lottery with a view to sprucing up their often run-down quarters. Even the British Museum, long ambivalent about appearing too trendy, could not pass up this opportunity.
In the last 12 months renovations or extensions have been completed at the Royal Opera House, the Tate Gallery (which gave birth to the new Tate Modern), the National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Gallery, the Wallace Collection and Somerset House, among others. On Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II will inaugurate the $145 million project that has transformed the British Museum's long-hidden Great Court into a stunning new enclosed public space.
Luckily, the availability of lottery money - it covered about 45 percent of the cost - coincided with the transfer of the British Library to new headquarters near St. Pancras Station in 1997. The Reading Room, most famous for accommodating the bulky form of Karl Marx as he wrote "Das Kapital," was suddenly empty and without a mission. For a museum crammed with objects and people, the space offered a rare chance to breathe.
In its day the Reading Room was an afterthought. When the museum was designed in 1823 to replace its first home, Montagu House, the architect Robert Smirke created a rectangular neo-Classical courtyard, 313 feet by 235 feet, at the center of the building. But in 1857, just seven years after the museum was completed, the Reading Room was added, and the rest of the courtyard was quickly invaded by stockrooms housing books. After that, visitors to the Reading Room neither saw its drab brick exterior nor even knew of the courtyard.
Now, following a design by Norman Foster that won a competition by 132 architectural firms, the courtyard has been cleared of all but the Reading Room, while a billowing transparent roof has turned the one-and-half-acre area into interior space. Reached by broad staircases on both sides of the Reading Room, an elliptical extension has added a gallery for temporary shows and a restaurant. New space is being prepared for the return of the museum's African collection from the Museum of Mankind in Mayfair. And beneath the courtyard are two small theaters and an education center.
The design has also completely altered the movement of people in and through the museum. The courtyard was built with four Ionic porticoes, but three of these were sealed and the fourth was demolished in the 1870's. By replacing the missing portico and reopening the others, Lord Foster not only restored symmetry to the piazza but also provided easy access to the museum's galleries from the courtyard.
A touch of populism was added by turning the courtyard into what Lord Foster called "an idealized fragment of the city." The public will now be free to wander through the heart of the museum - to visit its shops and cafes or simply to escape the rain - without visiting the galleries (for which, in any event, there is no entrance fee). The courtyard will remain open to the public every evening even after the museum closes.
No British cultural project, however, would be complete without an accompanying scandal. And this was provided by Easton Masonry, a stone quarry on the Island of Portland in southwestern England, that supplied the stone for reconstruction of the south portico. The British Museum as a whole is built of Portland stone, and it was this form of limestone that the contractor said it had delivered to the museum. "We were deceived," admitted Suzanna Taverne, the museum's managing director.
Last summer, with the portico half-built, the museum received an anonymous tip that it had in fact been supplied with an "inferior" and whiter French limestone called Austrude Roche Claire; even more embarrassing, this information was leaked to the British press. Suddenly there were whispers of police investigations, red faces at the British Museum as well as at Foster & Partners, and even calls for the resignation of the museum's trustees.
In the end, of course, nothing much happened: the contractor had $400,000 docked from his $2.5 million fee, but the stone remained, and no one resigned. It was recalled that the supposedly "inferior" French stone was used to build Canterbury Cathedral centuries ago. It was also noted that any new stone, Portland or otherwise, was certain to look whiter when still new and unexposed to rain and pollution. The Spanish stone used to cover the drum of the Reading Room is just as white, but this has not been an issue.
Despite continued "deep disappointment" in the south portico expressed by a watchdog organization called English Heritage, the Great Court has been given almost unanimous rave reviews both by British architecture critics and by members of the public who have been to receptions there. The ensuing publicity should in turn help the British Museum in its perennial struggle to keep afloat financially. For this project, while $64 million came from the lottery, the museum had to cover the $82 million balance with private donations.
As has become customary in renovated cultural institutions here, the walls of the museum are now peppered with the names of contributors, in this case most prominently Garry Weston, a Canadian-born British industrialist who gave $28 million, and Walter Annenberg, the former American ambassador to Britain, who gave $10 million. And now that the museum is enjoying the spotlight, it has embarked on a new round of fund-raising for a new $55 million Study Center, which is expected to be ready in 2003.
A more fundamental question, however, is how much the museum's rush to modernize itself will threaten its scholarly mission. Most Western museums today measure their success by attendance. So for the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, it suffices for him to boast that three million people visited the Tate Modern in its first six months. The British Museum, though, with close to six million visitors a year (three-quarters of them foreign tourists), hardly needs more crowds.
With the renovation of the Great Court, still more people will come to the museum simply to see the architecture, just as many go to the Tate Modern - once - to admire how the old power station beside the Thames has been transformed into a museum. It can also be presumed that groups of tourists and schoolchildren galore will continue to visit the British Museum, if only to see the so- called Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and the Rosetta stone.
And yet, despite the great deal of investment now visible in the British Museum's new roof, courtyard and underground installations, it remains in dire financial straits. With its annual grant from the government almost frozen at around $50 million, it needs to raise funds through private donations and sponsorships and through commercial and marketing outlets to put on exhibitions and support crucial archaeological excavations.
Sir Claus Moser, a museum trustee who is chairman of the British Museum Development Fund, the museum's fund-raising arm, is understandably alarmed. "Our central objectives remain scholarship, enlarging our collection and education," he explained. "At the moment, the government's acquisitions fund is pathetically low."
He said that he was happy that the museum now seemed less forbidding, but added that he was also wary of the perils of too much glitter. "We regard the Great Court as a wonderful development, but it can't just mean more fun in coming here," Sir Claus said. "We had to resist pressure to fill the courtyard with restaurants, to turn it into a marketplace. There is a warning example. You look at the Louvre, and you could be coming into an airport."
For this week's inauguration, the museum has organized a small but impressive exhibition, "Human Image," to remind visitors that it is more than just a place to entertain London's movers and shakers with Champagne and canapés. The show, presented in the new space called the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, comprises expressions of the human form covering all world civilizations dating back thousands of years and, no less appropriately, representing all 10 curatorial departments of the museum.
"I didn't want a `Treasures of´ exhibition but rather something that speaks for the whole museum," explained Jonathan C. H. King, the ethnography curator who organized the show. The display, which ranges from drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael to Benin bronzes, Hindu goddesses and Aztec masks, is in turn organized under a half-dozen themes, like creation, devotion and power.
Along with shopping and snacking, then, people wandering through the courtyard can now have a free taste of art without actually entering the museum, just as they will be able to enter the Reading Room and admire its 140-foot-diameter dome, its three circular rows of books and its long 19th-century study tables without actually having to read. No wonder the museum's director, Robert Anderson, can frequently be heard saying, "Scholarship, scholarship, scholarship." The museum's battle with entertainment has now been joined.