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British Museum’s Great Court goes back to the future

Starting on the 11th of September the British Museum will be hosting a series of public debates on the Museum’s future and purpose. They should make for interesting listening.  Marco Polo’s recent posting of a proposal for the Round Reading Room received a huge response – clearly many want to have their say.

Here Marco Polo offers some pointers for the debate.

Some museums are deeply affecting the moment you cross the threshold.  Museums as diverse as the Oxford University Museum, the Cinema Museum in Turin, and the Natural History Museum in Paris are all visually stunning and hit the spot.  I’ve revisited each of these museums numerous times to understand why this is the case. I’ve thought about this obsessively for years, and I’ve concluded that they work for two reasons.

Firstly, they are total works of art, in their own right – gesamtkunstwerks – where content, container and atmosphere all align.

Secondly, they all answer the subconscious question – Why am I here? Not just today, but what it means to be alive, to be human.

So the Cinema Museum in Turin is a palace of dreams that captures the marvel of images that move in light, as well as being Italian. And yet it is also a museum of the world’s cinema.  The Oxford University Museum melds natural history and architecture, and is both didactic – truth to materials is revealed, each column is another stone from the British Isles – but is also a celebration of nature in architecture, of bones and foliage.  (And when it’s bowled you over, you step through another small portal and enter the Pitt Rivers Museum – a ‘double whammy’).  In its opening space the Natural History Museum in Paris recreates what God saw on the seventh day when he rested.  It is archetypal – Noah’s Ark – but also a story of nature endangered by the tide of human intervention.

The point about these exemplar museums is that it is content and meaning that drives them, whereas in many museum developments in recent decades it has been architecture that dominates.  The result is spaces half empty rather than half full.

The British Museum’s Great Court (which envelopes the Round Reading Room) has a classic container/content challenge.  It isn’t enough for the architecture to be a stand-alone work of art.  The diamond grid of the Great Court roof is an elegant, high-tech solution but the space beneath is driven by catering, by corporate entertainment and by processing large numbers of culture-consuming tourists.  There is a distinct phenomenon in contemporary museums of container and content being out of balance, with too much architecture and not enough content.

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Current view of the British Museum’s Great Court

Marco Polo has already suggested one content-based way of bringing life and meaning to the heart of the Museum in its suggested transformation of the Round Reading Room.  A similar approach could transform the Great Court.  It too could become a content-rich and deeply moving ‘Why am I here?’ space.  Look at the image at the top of this page, and see how this space could be transformed, when filled with statues, stelae, reliefs, totems – all the ways from around the world that human beings have worked with stone.  Imagine also how it relates to our proposed redisplay of the Round Reading Room – the Great Court being about Image and the Round Reading Room about Word, and both working together.

It is artefacts and stories that put meaning into a space but with the container/content relationship out of balance and the architecture dominating, the risk is that artefacts will begin to feel like clutter.  Yet in the 19th century our intervention would have been perfectly normal because the Great Court space would have been a content space.  Think of those magnificent images of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace.  It was not just a great container but also held wonderful and stunning displays – theatre that transformed it. But then Paxton, remember, started out as a gardener at Chatsworth.

So what if the British Museum commissioned a new Masterplan that addresses the Great Court as a ‘Who am I?’ space?

All my experience planning museums tells me that there could be some surprises here – and the bonus would be that the Great Court and the Round Reading Room would celebrate ‘Who are we?’ for a fraction of the capital spend on buildings.  (And I don’t believe there is any problem making corporate hospitality work with artefacts.) That would put the British Museum up there with the Oxford University Museum and the Pitt Rivers – truly the World’s Museum.

By Stephen Greenberg