A New Look for an Old Edifice

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Karl Marx visited almost daily for 30 years and wrote "Das Kapital" there, but he certainly would not recognize the place now. In fact, most modern visitors to the British Museum and its historic Reading Room might have trouble grasping the transformation unveiled last week. The venerable institution has thrown off its quaint mustiness and become one of Europe's most inviting cultural attractions. From the outside, the neoclassical façades of the 150-year-old building look unchanged, except that the front courtyard is no longer obscured by parked cars. The rejuvenation really begins in the vast front hall, where for decades the prevailing color was a dispiriting civil service gray; it is now restored to its former glory, with walls and ceilings elaborately painted and gilded in the intricate designs the Victorians employed. The most astonishing change, however, lies at the heart of the institution. There, suddenly, an immense rectangular courtyard has appeared, roofed with an airy, curving mantle of latticed steel and glass. On each side stand four neoclassical porticoes and a stark, white, contemporary drum of a building dominates the center.

The big surprise is that the courtyard exists at all. It was there when the museum was completed by 1850 but it has not been visible since the circular Reading Room was added a few years later, and the space around was filled with buildings to house books. When the British Library moved into new quarters in 1998 there was no immediate role for the Reading Room except, perhaps, as a memorial to the intellectuals and writers from Charles Darwin to Charles Dickens to Mahatma Gandhi who frequented it. At the same time, the museum was crying out for more space for its collections, its educational activities and its visitors, now an annual 5 to 6 million — 70% of them from outside Britain and vastly more than the 100,000 for which the building was designed.

Just as lottery money helped establish the British Museum in the 18th century, funds from the current national lottery — supplemented by private donors, including former U.S. ambassador to Britain Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore — helped pay for the $144 million makeover. A competition for how best to use the space attracted 132 submissions. The winner: internationally renowned architect Norman Foster, who is responsible for the recent restoration of Berlin's Reichstag. Foster stripped out the library storage buildings, exposing the courtyard and the Reading Room. He then covered both the floor of the Great Court, as it is now known, and the outside of the Reading Room walls in white stone and flung over all of it a ceiling composed of 3,312 triangles of glass.

Under this unifying, soaring net, the classical porticoes manage to blend happily with the contemporary design of the Reading Room to create what is now Europe's largest covered square. Visitors may have rest and refreshments surrounded by free-standing sculptures. The piazza stays open after museum hours, offering a public space that could enliven what is now a relatively desolate precinct of London. The Great Court also serves as a hub for easy entry into the museum's various collections, ending the need for long and confusing treks down clogged galleries. Meanwhile, the formerly dingy interior of the domed Reading Room is now radiant in gold, blue and cream. It houses a reference library for all — not just cardholders — plus 50 computer terminals offering a sophisticated multimedia database on the museum's treasures; so far 2,000 have been compiled, with plans for 5,000 by next year. The old wooden reading desks are still there, however, and Foster notes with pleasure that although plugs for laptops have been added, hooks for storing quill pens remain.

As in many a major public building project, the restoration is not without its critics. A contractor allegedly failed to inform officials that he was using French limestone to recreate the destroyed south portico rather than the more expensive English Portland stone used in the other porticoes. The French version was used to build Canterbury Cathedral and is the same oolitic limestone as its English counterpart, from which it is indistinguishable except by expert testing. Nevertheless, newspapers published denunciations and preservationists demanded resignations, investigations and the rebuilding of the portico. The contractor was penalized $345,600 and the work went ahead.

For Foster, the project was "an incredible challenge." After all, he says, "there's only one British Museum." Marx obviously thought so too, and changed world history with its help. Now, 250 years after its creation, a rejuvenated British Museum is hoping to prove just as influential in the future.