UK’s Top 20 Historic Listed Buildings: British Museum
History – The British Museum is a well known and much loved Grade 1 listed Building, a focal point in the heart of London for lovers of history and antiquities. Although it is known as the British Museum it is in fact a building that houses artefacts and information from practically every nation and civilisation both ancient and modern. The original building that stands on this site in Bloomsbury central London was build around 1670 for Ralph Duke of Montagu who employed the services of the architect Robert Hook. Hook was an outstanding architect as well as a natural philosopher whose contributions to mathematics, optics as well as architecture and astronomy make him one of the foremost scientific personalities of the time. He was at the forefront of plans for rebuilding London following the great fire but alas his grid plan system was not adopted and perhaps it is the original construction of Montagu house for which he is best remembered.
The original Hook structure was alas damaged by fire itself in 1686 and was restored under the guidance of the French architect Pugeut in the French style. This building was considered to be one of the finest of the time and drew admiration from many quarters. Indeed one of it’s many admirers was the Government of the day who in 1753 following the death of Sir Hans Sloane found themselves in the tricky situation of possibly seeing his collection of 71000 artefacts disappear abroad if the did not come up with a sum of money of £20000 for his heirs. The money was duly paid, the items were bequeathed to the King and the government took possession of Montagu House and the British Museum came in to existence.
This collection and the others that were constantly being added quickly rendered the building obsolete and thus in 1802 a committee was set up with the purposes of expanding the existing building to a more appropriate size. The first extension constructed was known as the Townley gallery and this was completed by 1805, the architect chosen to head this was work was George Sanders whose structure was designed in the Palladian style, this section had to demolished in 1844 to make way for the new Smirke building.
If you visit the British Museum today, you will see a fine Grade 1 listed building whose core was designed by Smirke. This includes the most impressive South front constructed in the green revival style. Although work was started as early as 1823 it was not completed until 1852 perhaps prompted by the sense of urgency brought about by the gift of his fathers library made by George IV. This new building was a quadrangle which used up the garden of Montagu house, with the dramatic south wing which replaced the old building. In 1852 it was decided that even more space was needed and the empty quadrangle seemed the ideal place to construct the library and this additional work was finished in 1857. Buildings & Renovation – The British Museum currently consists of the following sections:-
The White Wing – This part of the complex faces Montague Street and was constructed between the years 1882-5 the services of Sir John Taylor were employed as chief architect. This wing is named after William White who made monies available after the death of his widow to aid it’s construction.
King Edward VII’s galleries – King Edward VII’s galleries were designed by Sir John Burnet in the style known as Beaux Arts. They face Montague Place to the north and were once part of a grand plan to replace all of the surrounding buildings in the area. Although freeholds were purchased from the Bedford estates, these plans will never come to fruition as the selected buildings now have protection orders on them forbidding their alteration or demolition.
The Parthenon galleries – These galleries were specifically constructed to house the Parthenon Sculptures and were funded by Sir Joseph Duveen in 1931. The architect involved was John Russell Pope an American whose previous work included the National Gallery in Washington. Although work was completed in 1939, because of bomb damage caused during the Second World War, they was not actually opened until 1962
The New Wing – A strangely unimaginative title, the New Wing was constructed between 1975-78 and was formally opened in 1980. Initially, it was envisaged that this new wing would provide public facilities including an exhibition gallery, restaurant, and offices etc but, because of cuts in government spending; only half the scheme has been completed. The architect appointed to oversee the building work was Sir Colin St John Wilson whose work also includes the British Library at St Pancras.
The Great Court – The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court was designed by Lord Foster was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in December 2000. In 1998, the library departments were moved to the new building at St Pancreas (The British Library) The obsolete book stacks surrounding Smirke’s round Reading Room were dismantled and a whole new floor was constructed across the courtyard. This new construction was then roofed over to provide the largest covered square in Europe and it is quite spectacular with a wonderful sense of space and light. The Reading Room was then restored to it’s 1857 state and other new facilities were included Access to other galleries can also be obtained from this area.
It seems odd that this wonderful Grade 1 listed building, constructed to guard not just our own heritage but items from the world over may now be in need of some conservation of it’s own. The complex is situated in central London and each day the property is being attached by pollution, Modern life is the bain of all our Grade listed buildings and we need to insure that works are carried out to ensure they are still available for future generations to enjoy.
This article was written by Assetsure- a provider of Listed Building Insurance.