Suitable for all ages
Around 40 minutes
Get closer to Greek Revival architecture at the British Museum.
In the 1820s, the English architect Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867) designed an extraordinary new home for the British Museum. He chose to use the then highly fashionable Greek Revival style.
From the main entrance on Great Russell Street to the King's Library, embark on a journey through the British Museum to see and learn more about Greek Revival architecture.
Start the trail below and follow the map to explore 11 locations.
Robert Smirke's masterplan
The British Museum was established in 1753. Its first home was Montagu House, a grand French-style mansion of the 1660s that stood near today's main entrance. By 1821 it was too small for the growing collection and in need of repair. Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a new building.
Smirke’s original design – inspired by the architecture of the ancient Greek world – comprised a huge quadrangle open to the air (now the Great Court) surrounded on all four sides by galleries for sculpture, small objects, natural history collections and library spaces. He used all of the three main Greek orders of architecture – the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
To ensure the Museum remained open, Smirke’s Greek Revival building was erected in stages. Construction of the spectacular south front – with its great colonnade and 44 Ionic columns – was not completed until the late 1840s.
A renewed European interest in ancient Greek architecture had emerged in the 1750s. For the first time, ancient Greek buildings were studied and recorded in detail. This research influenced contemporary architects, artists and designers like Smirke. His design for the British Museum was created at the pinnacle of what is now known as the Greek Revival movement.
While the Museum has changed through time, Smirke’s great building remains its core. Join this 11-stop trail and explore its Greek Revival style, taking about 40 minutes to complete.
1. The South Front
The south façade of the Museum is dominated by a massive colonnade and portico (monumental porch) of 44 Ionic columns, topped with capitals with distinctive scroll-like ornaments (or volutes). Many of the details are taken from ancient Greek buildings in Athens and western Turkey (especially Priene) dating to the 5th–4th centuries BC.
The Museum is not however a literal copy of an ancient building. It combines ancient and modern architecture with the latest 19th-century building technology, developed during the industrial revolution. Many ancient Greek temples were constructed of solid blocks of marble or limestone cut by hand, but the British Museum is built with brick faced with huge slabs of Portland stone. The Museum’s concrete foundations are over two meters thick in places, to support the great weight of the columns and colonnade.
2. The Portico
2. The Portico
A portico of eight Ionic columns topped by a triangular pediment (originally the gable end of a temple) is at the centre of the South Front. Porticos of this size are found on ancient Greek buildings in Turkey.
Smirke’s original design was very plain. The sculpture in the pediment, carved by the artist Richard Westmacott, was added later in 1851. Inspired by ancient Greek pedimental sculpture, especially the Parthenon, the 'Progress of Civilisation' depicts the emergence of humankind from a primitive state (on the left) to one of civilisation (on the right) through religion, knowledge and art.
The large figure in the centre holding a globe stands for astronomy. The animals and plants on the right hand side, show the growth of natural history through global exploration and imperialism. The British Museum housed natural history collections until the 1880s.
3. The colonnade and door
3. The colonnade and door
Today, most visitors enter the Museum via the South Front, walking up the steps or using the lifts to access the colonnade. In ancient buildings, colonnades provided shelter against wind, and rain and protected the building, but in the 19th century, the public were rarely allowed on the Museum’s colonnade.
The columns are topped with Ionic capitals, with distinctive spiral scroll-like features that may have been derived from shells. The colonnade’s ceiling is made up of sunken square panels known as coffers, typical of Greek temples and other buildings.
The Main entrance is decorated with elaborate carved mouldings derived from ancient Greek art such as dentils, egg-and-dart, palmettes, honeysuckle and reels. These and other motifs are found throughout the building in many different combinations, some carved and others painted.
4. The Weston Hall
4. The Weston Hall
In the entrance hall Robert Smirke used the more austere Doric order to create a powerful and dramatic interior, especially the paired columns framing the grand staircase. The column tops have distinctive circular capitals, much plainer than the Ionic capitals used outside.
The walls are painted to resemble marble. Like in the colonnade the ceiling is coffered, and the great piers (square columns) and doors are capped with the same decorative mouldings as those seen outside.
Robert Smirke intended most of the walls and the ceiling to be plain. However, when his brother Sydney Smirke (1797–1877) took charge of the building work in 1847, he decided they were too austere, and proposed a daring scheme evoking the rich painted decoration of ancient buildings. The restraint of the original Greek Revival scheme gave way to a riot of colour. Fashions changed again and much of this splendid decoration was painted over in the 1920s. What you see today was restored, along with the original space, to Sidney Smirke's vision in the 1990s.
5. The Great Court
5. The Great Court
Smirke’s original building was designed around a huge open-air quadrangle (courtyard), intended to be a garden for promenading.
Each of the four interior sides of the quadrangle has a monumental portico in the Ionic order, though originally only one actually functioned as a doorway. Smirke’s original design, which wasn’t followed in the end, was grander still, proposing an Ionic colonnade running along the north side of the quadrangle and a much grander northern side.
In the 1850s, the Round Reading Room and many book stacks were added to the quadrangle by Sydney Smirke. The books remained until the 1990s when Sir Norman Foster added the spectacular roof you see today. Larger than a football pitch, Smirke’s courtyard is the largest covered square in Europe.
6. The King's Library
6. The King's Library
Designed to house the library of King George III (1760–1820), this grand room (today the Enlightenment gallery) combines Greek Revival splendour with innovative construction techniques.
The elaborate plaster ceiling, decorated with Greek motifs, is supported by massive iron beams, allowing for an unusually wide room and supporting the exhibition galleries above.
The four columns of Aberdeen granite support capitals in the Corinthian order (the third and most elaborate of the Greek architectural orders) with spiky acanthus leaves and scrolls. They are made of Derbyshire alabaster, one of several expensive materials used throughout this room.
Granite, marbles and scagliola (plaster highly polished to look like stone) of different colours line the walls, the floors are mahogany and the bookcases oak. The gilded brass balconies are decorated with the Wand of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. In Smirke’s time this symbol was associated with Athena, patron of wisdom and eloquence.
7. Continuity and change (Living and Dying – The Wellcome Trust Gallery)
7. Continuity and change
Although most of Robert Smirke’s original design survives, some spaces have changed substantially. The space currently occupied by the Living and Dying displays (Room 24) was once the Large Room.
The Large Room was divided up with massive piers topped with Greek Revival capitals of the same kind you can see in the Museum. Completed in 1838, this part of the Museum has been altered numerous times since – the only surviving part of Smirke’s building here is the Arched Room, which now houses the study room and library of the Department of the Middle East.
8. The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery
8. The Sculpture Gallery
Built in stages from 1826 onwards, the massive but restrained design of the Sculpture Gallery is a striking contrast to the opulence of the King’s Library on the opposite side of the Great Court.
Pairs of huge plain Doric columns – topped with circular capitals - define the centre of the long gallery, divided into bays throughout its length by massive piers. The coffered ceilings recall the interior of a Greek temple. The room was built in stages from 1826 to house the Museum’s collection of ancient sculpture from Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome.
Like the entrance hall, Smirke’s great Sculpture Gallery was once painted in vivid Greek Revival style.
9. The Nereid Monument (Room 17)
9. The Nereid Monument
In Smirke’s original design, the Parthenon sculptures were displayed in what is now Room 17.
Today this room is home to the Nereid Monument, a sculpted marble tomb of a ruler who lived in Lycia (modern Turkey) around 400 BC. Greek architecture was very popular around the ancient Mediterranean and non-Greeks commissioned buildings in this style. The Nereid Monument’s Ionic architecture is similar to ancient buildings, in modern Turkey, that inspired Smirke’s design for the South Front of the Museum.
The Nereid monument and other sculpture from Lycia (modern Turkey) arrived in the Museum in the 1840s. Smirke had to extend his design to house these new additions and the famous Assyrian sculptures from Iraq, excavated by Sir Austin Layard. Sydney Smirke added further galleries in this part of the building to accommodate yet more sculpture from ancient sites in Turkey, including Ephesos and Halikarnassos.
10. The Parthenon
10. The Parthenon
The Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens is one of the most famous monuments of the ancient world. Built between 447 and 432 BC as a temple and treasury for the goddess Athena, glorifying the might of the Athenian empire, it later served as a church, a cathedral and an Ottoman mosque.
In 1803 Robert Smirke visited Athens to study Greek monuments as part of his professional training as an architect. Smirke drew the Parthenon when it was still enveloped by medieval and later structures. During his visit, Lord Elgin's agents were at work removing sculpture and architectural elements from the Acropolis, which were later acquired by the British Museum (displayed in Room 18).
This room contains a model of the Parthenon along with casts of sculptures that formed part of its frieze. It offers a good introduction to the architecture of one of the best known buildings from the ancient Greek world.
11. The Duveen Gallery
11. The Duveen Gallery
The Greek revival style developed in the later 1700s and early 1800s became a global phenomenon, though its popularity has had its ups and downs over the years.
It remained a key influence in the design of the British Museum as it changed and expanded. The Duveen Gallery was built in the 1930s as a new home for the Parthenon sculptures, using Greek Revival details to create a new, modern exhibition space. Once again, the simplicity and splendour of ancient buildings appealed to contemporary needs and tastes.
The ancient Greek world continues to inspire modern creativity 200 years after the arrival of the Parthenon sculptures in London and the building of Smirke’s British Museum in homage to the classical past.
Who was Robert Smirke?
The British Museum was designed by one of the most successful architects of the 1800s, Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867), a key figure in the Greek Revival movement.
Showing a great talent for drawing from an early age, he embarked on a career in architecture. Travelling extensively in Europe between 1802 and 1805, Smirke was exposed to the European architectural tradition. He became fascinated by the ancient Greek buildings he saw in Italy and Greece.
Drawing on the patronage of the ruling Tory establishment, Robert designed houses and clubs for the wealthy, churches for the pious and public buildings for the powerful British state enriched by trade and empire.
His Covent Garden Opera House caused a sensation in 1809. Fronted by a huge Doric portico with columns larger than the Parthenon and decorated with sculpture by the famous artist John Flaxman, it combined the fashionable simplicity of the Greek Revival with daring construction techniques.
Smirke developed the biggest architectural practice in Britain and in 1815, he was made one of the three official architects to the Office of Works, which is why he was asked to design the new British Museum in 1821. Long before the British Museum’s great Ionic colonnade, Smirke created monumental buildings in the same style. The General Post Office in London, demolished in 1912, is a kind of lost sibling to the British Museum. He also rebuilt the front of London Customs House and what is now Canada House in Trafalgar Square.
Smirke was famous for the solidity of his buildings which used the latest construction methods; iron beams and concrete foundations. He was also renowned for the efficiency of his construction, nearly always on time and to budget. Smirke worked on the British Museum until 1845, when he retired because of ill-health. His brother and long-standing assistant Sydney Smirke picked up the baton and continued to expand and develop Smirke’s grand design.