The Great Court
At the centre of the British Museum sits the largest covered public square in Europe, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court.
Designed by Foster and Partners, the Great Court is a two-acre space enclosed by a spectacular glass roof with the world-famous Reading Room in the middle.
The 6 December 2020 marked 20 years since the redesigned Great Court was opened. In that time, 113 million people have walked under the glass roof.
A place for all
Free and open every day to visitors, the Great Court is one of London's most unique spaces.
In the original Robert Smirke Great Court design, the courtyard was supposed to be a garden. However, from 1852 many bookstacks were built, and along with the Reading Room it became the home of the library department of the Museum.
The department stayed in the Great Court until 1997, when it was relocated to the new British Library building in St Pancras. Now empty, the Museum took the opportunity to once again reopen the space to the public.
The new Millennium
An architectural competition to redesign the courtyard space was launched with three aims: reveal hidden spaces, revise old spaces and create new spaces. With more than 130 entries, the eventual winner was Foster and Partners.
The £100 million project was supported by grants of £30 million from the Millennium Commission and £15.75 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Queen Elizabeth II
The Great Court will benefit the millions of people who come to the British Museum every year. We can be confident that it will become a landmark associated with the new millennium.Queen Elizabeth II
Redesigning the Great Court
The redesign of the Great Court allowed the previously hidden space to be seen once again, no longer lost to the general public.
Loosely based on Norman Foster's concept for the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin, a key aspect of the design was that with every step in the Great Court the vista changed giving the visitor a new surrounding.
Work on the Great Court's magnificent glass and steel roof – made from 3,212 panes of glass (no two of which are the same) – began in September 1999.
The Great Court was opened on 6 December 2000 by Queen Elizabeth II.
On completion, the redesign grew the Museum by 40 per cent. For the first time in more than 150 years, the new two-acre Great Court gave visitors the chance to move freely around the main floor of the Museum.
Creating new spaces
The redesign of the Great Court also provided two new gallery spaces: The Sainsbury Galleries, housing a display of objects from the Museum's Africa collection; and the Wellcome Trust Gallery, home to a series of long-term, cross-cultural, thematic exhibitions, currently based around Living and Dying.
A new space for temporary exhibitions, Room 35 – The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery – was also built.