Everything you ever wanted to know about the Great Court
The Great Court was opened 20 years ago, on 6 December 2000, by Her Majesty The Queen. So to celebrate the last two decades we’ve rounded up 20 great stats and facts about the awe-inspiring space.
113,226,146 visitors have passed through the Great Court in the last 20 years – that’s over 100,000 a week! It’s not surprising that the spectacular space has become one of the most-recognisable and best-loved parts of the Museum, and is also one of the most frequently photographed 📸
Raising the roof
Without a doubt, the most impressive feature of the Great Court is the tessellating glass roof which covers the space. Engineered by Buro Happold to a design by Foster + Partners, and built by Waagner-Biro, the 3,312 individual panels of glass are held together by four miles of steel! And there’s enough glass up there to glaze around 500 household greenhouses.
‘Raising the roof’ captured the imaginations of many who got involved with our fundraising campaign. Every pane in the ceiling of the Great Court is a donation from visitors and Members. Many of these donations were made in memory or honour of a loved one. The campaign lives long in the memories and hearts of these people, with families continuing to take a moment to remember when they look up to the roof.
Although the roof looks airy and light, as if it’s floating above the Great Court like a net, covering 6,100 square metres is no mean feat and the whole thing is mind-bogglingly heavy. The 315 tonnes of glass that make up the roof are supported by a 478-tonne steel structure – in total, that’s equivalent to seven-and-a-half blue whales.
So that the roof can move naturally, and respond to changes in temperature as well as the weight of snow, it’s attached to the courtyard’s perimeter walls with sliding bearings – a clever piece of engineering that allows it to expand or contract instead of cracking. The Great Court can also get dark when the roof is covered in snow, so floodlights are fixed around the top of the Round Reading Room, illuminating the space.
It takes about two weeks to clean the whole roof.
It gets cleaned every three months as, being in the centre of London, it gets very dirty. The cleaners need a head for heights, and must be light on their feet – you can’t walk unaided on the roof – instead you have to be hooked on by a harness to a network of cables that run over the it, which can’t be seen from below.
The roof stands 26.3m above the floor at its highest point – that’s nearly as tall as six of London’s famous double-decker buses! These dizzying heights mean we can display some of the tallest objects in the collection – including the 12-metre-tall Haida totem pole from Kayang, Haida Gwaii, Canada and the 8-metre-tall Nisga’a totem pole from the Nass River, British Columbia, Canada. Both poles were made in the mid 1800s.
Walked on by thousands of feet every day, the floor is made from Balzac limestone quarried in France, and you might also have noticed a Tennyson quote engraved into the south side.
The floor can only support one tonne per two square metres, so lightweight cranes on tracks need to be used for cleaning or engineering. Because of the weight restrictions, cranes that can reach all the way to the ceiling are too heavy, so to attach promotional banners or clean the underside of the roof you need to abseil!
At two acres, the Great Court is the largest covered square in Europe – it’s bigger than a football pitch.
During construction of the new space, 20,000 m3 of demolition material was removed from inside the courtyard, equivalent to twice the volume of the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery or 12 Olympic swimming pools.
The current design is not the first at the Museum to have involved a glass roof. Just two years after the completion of Robert Smirke’s grand Greek Revival building in the early 1850s, Charles Barry, joint architect of the Palace of Westminster, proposed roofing over the courtyard with sheets of glass supported on 50 iron pillars. This new space, inspired by the famous Crystal Palace of 1851, was to have served as a Hall of Antiquities, but never came to fruition.
In the original Robert Smirke design for the Museum, the central space within the quadrangle of buildings was supposed to be a garden and an open courtyard for promenading, as shown in this 19th-century print. However, from 1852 lots of bookstacks were built in the space and, along with the Round Reading Room, it became the home of the Museum’s library department.
After the library relocated to the new British Library building in Kings Cross in 1997, an architectural competition to redesign the Museum’s courtyard space was launched with three aims – to reveal hidden spaces, revise old spaces and create new spaces. With more than 130 entries, the eventual winner was Foster + Partners.
The £100 million project was generously supported through public funding and private grants, with the Millennium Commission, The Garfield Weston Foundation and the National Lottery Heritage Fund as Principal Benefactors. The enduring contribution of these supporters and many more donors is immeasurable, and we are grateful to those who continue to support the Museum today.
Philippa Charles, Director, Garfield Weston Foundation said, ‘The Garfield Weston Foundation is delighted to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court with the British Museum. Over the course of a 25-year partnership rooted in a shared commitment to heritage, education, and public engagement, the Foundation has supported strategic initiatives at the Museum reaching millions of people from across the UK and around the world. The Foundation Trustees gave the lead donation towards the creation of the Great Court knowing that it would unlock substantial matched funding, and made the project possible. The iconic courtyard has transformed the Museum by placing visitors and education at its heart, and we are thrilled that our support continues to make the collection, research, and scholarship more widely accessible.’
On completion, the redesign grew the Museum by 40%. For the first time in more than 150 years, the new two-acre Great Court gave visitors the chance to move freely around the main floor of the Museum.
Foster + Partners’ design created a total of 13,990 m2 of new facilities, including two new gallery spaces – the Sainsbury Galleries, housing a display of objects from the Africa collection, and the Wellcome Trust Gallery, which explores how people around the world deal with the tough realities of life and death. Room 35 – the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery – was also built, creating a new space for temporary exhibitions.
The redesign also included the Ford Centre for Young Visitors and the Clore Centre for Education, allowing the Museum to expand its educational offer for schools and families with a range of tailor-made facilities.
We sell over a million hot drinks in our restaurant and cafés every year, providing some much-needed refreshment for visitors as they explore the 80,000 objects on display.
Special occasions and celebrations
When The Queen opened the Great Court in 2000, our Visitor Services staff had the chance to put on the Windsor Livery, which can be worn on special occasions. It was granted to the Museum by King William IV in 1835, and consists of a blue coat with a scarlet collar and cuffs and the words ‘British Museum’ engraved around the buttons.
These photos from the archive show gallery attendant George Byard wearing the Windsor Livery in 1867.
The space has been home to numerous installations over the last 20 years, including the Tree of Life in 2005, which now sits in Room 25. It was commissioned by the Museum from the Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) project in 2004, and was made by Cristóvão (Kester) Canhavato, Fiel dos Santos, Adelino Mate and Hilario Nhatugueja. The tree is built from decommissioned firearms which were exchanged for ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines following the end of the Mozambican civil war in 1992.
Other installations have included a scale model of the ancient site of Olympia in 2004, a sculpture of Antinous in 2008 for the Hadrian exhibition, a Volkswagen Beetle in 2014, Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie figures in 2015, and Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car 12 in 2016.
Throughout the past two decades a series of special events have taken place in the Great Court, one of which was in 2008, when the Olympic torch passed through on its way to Beijing.
Since then, we’ve hosted Day of the Dead celebrations in 2009 and 2015, Mandela day in 2010, and a two-week long music festival in April 2018 – find out more here.
A fair few famous faces have graced the Court since it opened 20 years ago, including Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Katy Perry, Anthony Joshua, Angelina Jolie, and Leonardo di Caprio – so keep an eye out on your next visit, you never know who might be just the other side of a display case!
As well as being the venue for all these events and celebrations, you might have spotted the space on the big screen, with several blockbusters having been filmed here.
Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic architecture in The Mummy Returns (2001), with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, or you might have caught a glimpse in Possession (2002), starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
More recently, it’s been featured in Night at the Museum: Secrets of the Tomb (2014), and was the backdrop for Marvel mighties Justice League (2017) and Wonder Woman (2017).
This photo was taken at the afterparty for the James Bond Spectre premier in 2015, when the Great Court came alive with figures from the film’s Day of the Dead opening sequence.
Hungry for more?
Find 29 facts you might not have known about the British Museum in this blog.
Read all about the last 260 years of the Museum in numbers here.
See the space for yourself on your next trip to the Museum – find all our visiting information and book your free tickets here.