The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

On December 6th 2000 the Queen opened the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court after nearly three years of building work. The courtyard is vast, which is the first impression you get on entering, especially when you raise your eyes to Foster’s domed glass roof. Just as impressive from the outside, at least in terms of size, is the Reading Room in the centre, which is even larger than it was previously because a huge double staircase has been wrapped around it. I used to have the privilege, in the days of the British Library, to walk through the Reading Room every morning from the North Entrance, and was always dumbstruck by the magnificence of the dome. The restored dome is even more breathtaking: the original papier-mâché lining has been repaired, and the original paint scheme of gold on a light blue background has been reinstated. A wise decision was made to keep the original reader’s desks in place, and it is intended that the Reading Room will continue to be a place of study, as it will house the Paul Hamlyn library of 25,000 volumes.

And the controversial south portico? I personally think it looks fine, and I can’t really see what all the fuss has been about. It was not an original feature of the courtyard, so there isn’t a problem if it stands out as looking somewhat new; how could it not? The other porticos have been exposed to the elements for 200 years. It has been built in the style of Smirke and has three portals instead of one.

The Great Court will give 50% more public space for the museum, including a new Education Centre, a Young Visitors Centre, new galleries, shops and cafes. It will also house COMPASS, a computer based information system, where visitors will be able to research the museum’s collections and have high-quality prints made of individual objects within seconds.

The main effect of the Great Court will be better freedom of movement. The original entrance hall (now restored to its original Victorian colour scheme) was badly cramped and disorientating for visitors. They will now be able to come through the entrance hall and the new South Portico into the Great Court, where they can collect their thoughts and decide how to use their visit. There is also a bridge link with the upper levels from the terrace on the outside of the Reading Room.