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Face Lift for an Aging Grande Dame

The venerable British Museum, nearing 250, has been transformed, and its collection still wows crowds

June 16, 2002|PETER WHITTLE | Peter Whittle is a Los Angeles-based writer and TV broadcaster.

LONDON — An unapologetically grand institution, the British Museum could claim to be a country in itself. Like the Vatican, it is almost a mini-nation, one that offers a tour of some of the world's greatest sights and achievements in a single shot, has 2 1/2 centuries of market research to recommend it, and requires neither money nor passport.

The museum offers an unrivaled grandstand tour of global culture ancient and modern, from Greece and Rome to Korea and Japan by way of North America and medieval Europe to Africa and Egypt. And with more than 5.5 million visitors a year, it certainly boasts a healthier tourist trade than many countries.

But the museum is definitely a place with an address, nestled massive and imposing amid the narrow, quaint streets of the Bloomsbury district. And next year it will celebrate its 250th anniversary.

I had not visited the museum since I was a child in London, so, after hearing about the magnificence of the new Great Court--designed by acclaimed English architect Norman Foster and built to celebrate the new millennium--I chose a typically overcast London afternoon for a return visit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Features Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
London map--A map accompanying a story about the British Museum ("Face Lift for an Aging Grande Dame," June 16) incorrectly located Los Angeles in London.

If you're coming off traffic-cramped and tourist-laden Great Russell Street, it's impossible not to be impressed by the huge forecourt, with stone steps leading up to rows of classical columns. The majesty of the entrance, designed in 1823 by Robert Smirke, almost guarantees something special waiting within.

The entrance hall, with its high ceilings, massive stone stairway on the left and newly repainted but muted classical decoration, is gloomy and overbearing. But pass through quickly to the crowning glory of the museum, opened by Queen Elizabeth II two years ago. You'll be stopped in your tracks. Like a kind of secret city, the Great Court has sprung up inside the familiar gray exterior of the museum and has transformed it from the inside.

It's Europe's largest covered public square, comprising two acres of marble floors and white Portland stone walls. Before, the courtyard was open to the sky and housed a bleak maze of storage rooms and book depositories for the British Library. The library, with its circular Reading Room, had been an integral part of the museum until most of its books were moved in 1998 to a new building nearby on Euston Road, leaving the Reading Room in splendid isolation. It dominates the Great Court, which encompasses it.

The Reading Room's magnificence--its soaring arched windows, the yellow, white and gold leaf rotunda--made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Its sheer scale and height, the thousands of remaining books and its churchlike quietness made me feel more intelligent just by standing in it. It's as if somebody cut the dome off the U.S. Capitol, placed it on the ground and built a library inside it.

The place where Karl Marx came to write "Das Kapital" now houses the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre, another venue from which to explore the museum. From 50 computer terminals, visitors can access images and information on thousands of the museum's 6 million objects. The 12,000 volumes from the Paul Hamlyn Library, which now adorn the circular shelves, also deal with aspects of the collection. And, unlike in the past when you had to be a member of the British Library to use the Reading Room, now everybody can enjoy it: Get a free ticket when you visit, go in and stay as long as you like.

The roof over the Great Court is a 65,000-square-foot canopy of glass and crisscrossing steel, and through it I could see the sun had finally deigned to appear. The hundreds of visitors--predominantly German, Japanese and American--were ambling along, without that relentlessly joyless air of tourists "doing" a place.

Two open-plan cafes, some discreetly placed museum shops selling an excellent array of books and the obligatory mugs, and the odd ancient sculptures made me feel that I was in a living and breathing classical piazza. This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful modern additions to London's architecture that I have seen in years.

And the work goes on. To celebrate next year's anniversary, the King's Library, one of the finest 19th century interiors in London, which runs along the right side of the Great Court, is being restored. It holds the libraries of Kings George II and III, and next year it will contain a look-but-don't-touch permanent exhibition on 18th century learning and discovery.


So where to start the international tour? There are nearly 100 display rooms, a daunting prospect for the average visitor who spends only about three hours in the museum. It's impossible to see it all in one shot, so it's best to stick to the highlights and take in as much as you can on the way.

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