Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

Coordinates: 51°31′10″N 0°7′37″W / 51.51944°N 0.12694°W / 51.51944; -0.12694

View of the Great Court from the second floor of the southern wing.

The central quadrangle of the British Museum in London was redeveloped to a design by Foster and Partners, from a 1970s design by Colin St John Wilson,[1] to become the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, commonly referred to simply as the Great Court, during the late 1990s. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000.


The court has a tessellated glass roof designed by Buro Happold[2] and executed by Waagner-Biro, covering the entire court and surrounds the original circular British Museum Reading Room in the centre, now a museum. It is the largest covered square in Europe.[3] The glass and steel roof is made up of 4,878 unique steel members connected at 1,566 unique nodes and 1,656 pairs of glass windowpanes making up 6,100m2 of glazing;[4] each of a unique shape because of the undulating nature of the roof.

Controversially, some of the stone in the court is from France, rather than being Portland Stone from southern England as agreed in the original contract with the masons.

Within the Great Court, there are shops and a café. The court acts as a central linking point for the museum, somewhat like I. M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid in Paris.


The central courtyard of the British Museum was occupied by the British Library until 1997 when it moved to St Pancras. At that time the entire courtyard was filled with bookshelves, three stories high (the 'Bookstacks'). To get from one side of the museum to the other visitors had to go round.

Once the Library had moved out, the bookstacks were cleared and the Great Court constructed in this central courtyard. A new 'ground' level was created, a storey higher than the original courtyard, with the space below used to accommodate the Clore Education Centre and the African galleries (which had been housed at the Museum of Mankind since 1970).

The South Portico was largely rebuilt, with two new lifts incorporated for disabled access to the upper levels of the museum.

A new gridshell glass roof was provided over the entire courtyard to create a covered space at the centre of the museum.

The British Library Reading Room at the centre of the courtyard was retained and refurbished for use as the Museum library and information centre. As the Reading room had no outer wall - the bookstacks coming right up to the back of the reading room shelves - a new outer wall was created to protect the Reading room, to support the new roof and the conceal the ventilation ducts serving the spaces below.

North of the Reading Room there is a block with a museum shop at ground level, a gallery for temporary exhibitions above and a restaurant above that, just below the glass roof.

Education facilities

The Clore Education Centre is housed in the lower level of the Great Court. It comprises the:

Nelson Mandela spoke at the inauguration of the BP Lecture Theatre on 16 November 2000. He supported the Museum's global role.[5]


Upon the Great Court's opening to the public in 2000, twelve sculptures from the British Museum's collection were installed on the main floor of the concourse:

There were initial plans for a new, thirteenth sculpture to be commissioned from Anish Kapoor, but these were scrapped.

See also


  1. Stonehouse, R. 2007. Colin St John Wilson: Buildings and Projects. London: Black Dog Publishing. p455. ISBN 978-1-904772-70-5
  2. Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, British Museum, accessed 22 November 2010
  3. Stephen Brown (12 August 2002). "The firm that raised the roof". The Evening Standard (London). p. 22. The British Museum is one of Britain's most visited venues. To create more space, the Museum has made its historic round Reading Room the centrepiece of the largest covered courtyard in Europe. A spectacular glass and steel gridshell roof encloses the 6,700 sq metre (92m x 73m) courtyard and features more than 6,000 individual steel members connected at 1,800 nodes and 3,312 glazing panels.
  4. Steve Brown (18 October 2005). "Millennium and Beyond". The Structural Engineer.
  5. "Mandela supported the British Museum's global role". The Art Newspaper. Archived from the original on 7 December 2013.
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