Museum stories
An introduction to Greek architecture

The British Museum is one of the most famous buildings in the world. But have you ever thought about why it looks the way it does?

Grand designs

Let’s start at the beginning. When you walk into the Museum from Great Russell Street (that’s the Main entrance), most of the building you can see today was designed in 1823 by the architect Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867).

The British Museum’s façade was designed by Sir Robert Smirke.

Smirke designed the building in a style known as the Greek Revival. He used this popular style because historians and travellers had rediscovered ancient sites from the 1750s onwards. They returned to their home countries, including Britain, with sketchbooks packed full of drawings and measurements of the monuments they saw. The Museum’s building was particularly inspired by ancient Greek temples, the most famous of which is the Parthenon in Athens.

Here’s a quick introduction to some of the architectural features you can see on the British Museum’s building.

A portico is like a modern porch, and was usually the entrance to ancient Greek temples, just like in the Museum. It is made up of columns, which support the roof.

Columns are very important tall structures that support the roof. They come in all shapes and sizes, but ancient Greek ones come in three main types (or orders) called Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote a few stories to explain why they’re called that (but it’s quite likely he just made them up!):

  • Doric
    Dorus, mythical King of the Peloponnesus, built a temple so great that all temples in the surrounding area copied it. When the Athenians invaded and saw them, they began to build temples in the same style, calling them ‘Doric’ as they were originally built by the Dorians. The Athenians wanted to make theirs better, so they used the length of a man’s foot and height to get the perfect proportions. The Parthenon’s columns are Doric.
  • Ionic
    The Athenians wanted to build a temple to the goddess Artemis. They thought the Doric columns were too masculine, so they measured the foot and height of a woman. The big curling scrolls at the top (volutes) are like curly hair, and flutes (grooves carved into the column) are like folds in Greek clothing. The Museum’s columns are Ionic.
  • Corinthian
    Vitruvius said this column is based on a tragic story. A young girl from Corinth died and was buried, and her nurse put her things in a basket on top of her tomb. Her tomb rested on the root of an acanthus plant, and when spring came, the stalks and leaves grew up over the basket. An architect spotted it was inspired to create a new capital design.

Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capital types.

The capital is the top section of the column. It is wider than the rest of the column to support the weight of the roof, but is often the most interesting part to look at, as they can be highly decorative.

The Museum’s colonnade and columns.

A colonnade is a long row of columns which sometimes, but don’t always, support a roof. These are usually covered walkways, and are sometimes extensions of the portico. The Museum has 44 columns in the colonnade.

The frieze is a long section between the pediment and the columns that is purely for decoration. Usually it has lots of sculptural details. The Museum’s frieze doesn’t have any sculptures though. Here’s one of the friezes in the Museum from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai. The sculptures on this frieze depict a mythical battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths.

The frieze from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, Greece, on display in Room 16.

The pediment is a large triangle, usually found on top of temples. The Museum’s pediment was built in the 1850s, designed by Sir Richard Westmacott. The figures in it were supposed to represent ‘The Progress of Civilisation’ – now a very old-fashioned idea. If you look closely, on the far left you can see an uneducated man emerging from behind a rock. He learns things like sculpture, music and poetry, thus becoming ‘civilised’. These subjects are personified – they are represented by human figures. From left to right, they are Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Science, Geometry, Drama, Music and Poetry. The original pediment was designed with a blue background and the statues were all painted white.

Original design of the British Museum’s pediment by Sir Richard Westmacott. Drawing, c. 1847.

It took many years for Smirke’s Museum building to be completed. The new entrance hall opened in 1847 and the building has been added to many times over the years. The façade has become world famous, and remains an iconic symbol of all museums today.

For more about the British Museum’s architectural history, have a look at Archivist Francesca Hillier’s post on Montagu House, the building that preceded Smirke’s Greek Revival masterpiece.