Our monumental, Greek Revival style building sits at the heart of British academia in London's Bloomsbury.
With its four vast wings, 43 Greek temple inspired columns, triangular pediment and enormous steps, it's certainly not what you'd expect to see in central London.
Its grandeur was designed to reflect all the 'wondrous objects housed inside' by the architect Sir Robert Smirke in 1823. It emulated classical Greek architecture - a style which had become increasingly popular since the 1750s when western Europeans 'rediscovered' ancient Greece.
The building was completed in 1852, using up-to-the-minute 1820s technology: concrete floors, a cast-iron frame filled in with London stock brick, and Portland stone on the front layer of the building.
In 1853, the quadrangle building won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal.
The King's Library
The King’s Library (now the Enlightenment Gallery) was built to house King George III’s collection which included more than 65,000 books and had been donated to the nation by his son, George IV in 1823.
This gallery was the first wing of the new Museum’s quadrangular building to be built, with construction beginning in 1823. The room was on a grand scale: it is 91m (300ft) long, 12m (41ft) high and 9m (30ft) wide and its large dimensions required a pioneering approach to construction, with the use of cast irons beams to support the ornate ceiling.
The room was finished and opened for inspection in 1831 but as it was not originally intended to be used by the public, it was then closed again. Access was granted to the privileged few, by ticket only, until 1851 when it was briefly included in a circular tour of the Museum’s non-public areas, to coincide with the Great Exhibition being held at the time. It wasn’t until 1857 that the room was fully opened to all Museum visitors, and thereafter used to house Museum exhibitions.
In 1997, with the opening of the British Library at St. Pancras in London, the books were transferred to the new Library building. The books currently adorning the shelves are on loan from the House of Commons (Westminster) library collection.
With the room now empty, careful restoration work could begin. With the aim of restoring the room to its original 1820s design, work began in 2000 and was completed in 2003, in time to celebrate the Museum’s 250th anniversary.
Repairs were carried out to the oak and mahogany floor and the balcony around the room was re-gilded. Hundreds of square metres of ornate plasterwork were cleaned, restoring the original yellow and gold decoration.
Two hundred kilometres of wiring enabled a subtle lighting system to be installed, complementing the newly-restored colour scheme.
With the room restored to its former glory, it was then used to house a major permanent exhibition, using thousands of objects from the Museum’s collection. The aim of the new display was to show how people had begun to understand their world in the Age of Enlightenment.
In 2004, the King’s Library, now renamed the Enlightenment Gallery, won the Crown Estate Conservation Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the quality of its restoration and the value of its display on the history of the Enlightenment.
“The restoration of the room and its conversion to an exhibition about the history of the Enlightenment and of the early collections of the Museum itself have revealed it in its full glory as one of the finest rooms in London.” - Royal Institute of British Architects
South entrance and Museum forecourt
Several designs were considered by the Trustees for the South (main) entrance of the Museum. It was the last wing of the Museum quadrangle to be built, and construction could not begin until the first Museum building, Montagu House, which had been on the same site, had been demolished.
The building was designed in the classical style, as was fashionable at the time, with the East and West Wings built for a more domestic purpose, to house some senior Museum staff. The entire front of the Museum’s South entrance measures 112.7 metres (370 feet) and the columns are 13.7 metres (45 feet) high.
Several designs were also considered for the forecourt: one considered included a semi-circular carriageway curving around the front of the portico and another, a large ornate stone central archway. In the end, a more simple design was chosen, with two walled grassed areas to the front and gas-operated, single globe lamps, later converted to electricity and in the 1880s, a three-globe design.
The gates, each weighing 5 tons and originally operated by means of a windlass, were fitted above an underground passage, giving access to the machinery workings for oiling and maintenance. The railings were set in granite bases and were initially painted a bronze colour – they are now painted in ‘invisible green’ paint.
In keeping with the Museum’s classical design, an architectural feature known as a pediment was included above the columns.
Sir Richard Westmacott was commissioned to produce the sculpture for the tympanum, the recessed triangular space forming the centre of the pediment and his design was to represent the ‘Progress of Civilisation’.
Beginning on the left, it shows the creation of man, represented as he emerges, in his ignorance, from a rock; he then meets the Angel of Religion and learns the basic skills of life, such as cultivating the land and taming animals. Man then expands his knowledge and understanding, and the next eight figures represent his learning in the fields of architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, music and poetry when he finally emerges as an educated man.
The pediment was originally painted with a blue background.
The Weston Hall was designed by Sydney Smirke, who took over from his brother, Sir Robert Smirke, in 1845.
The patterns and colours on the ceiling of the Weston Hall were borrowed from classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated.
The electric lamps in the entrance hall are replicas of the original lighting lamps in the Museum. The Museum was the first public building to be electrically lit. A £20 million donation from the Weston Foundation enabled the restoration of the hall in 2000.