The British Museum is expanding again. After the triumph of the Great Court building, which has been one of the most successful museum transformations in recent years, the museum is now launched on its next major project: known as the North West Development Project, or now, more grandiosely, the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre.
The main thing the BM lacks at present is space for temporary exhibitions. Big temporary exhibitions are a fairly recent development in the museum world (and a fabulous opportunity for attracting corporate sponsors), but they are an aspect that is growing and the BM needs a space where it can lay them on. The temporary answer at present is to use the old Reading Room, where an elevated floor has been erected above the reading facilities to provide a grand if somewhat eerie exhibition space. But it is only temporary, and it really ought to return to its previous usage as the shrine where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and Bernard Shaw practised his journalism. Smaller exhibitions are held in the new first floor building behind the Reading Room and approached up the long exterior stairway. So, a big permanent temporary exhibition space (excuse the oxymoron) is still very necessary.
There are other problems too. The BM needs new laboratories to accommodate the Department of Conservation and Science, now an essential part of any museum, as well as a collections management hub. A suitable area for development has, indeed, been located in the north-west corner of the museum. The north side of the museum holds the Edward VII galleries and forms what is in effect the back entrance. But if you go from the entrance back towards Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road, there are a couple of rather forlorn, Georgian-looking buildings with space on either side of them. They appear to be Georgian, but look carefully and clearly they are not. These buildings are fakes, having been rebuilt in the 1970s (and rather badly built at that) — a rather botched job of post-war reconstruction. Pull these down, demolish the low- lying sheds behind them and there is room to construct a new north-west building.
The idea is a splendid one, but the execution has been less happy. The main problem is the architecture. The design of the buildings was entrusted to Richard Rogers (Lord Rogers) the architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and numerous airports, and a very fine designer of ultra-modern buildings. For the British Museum he has produced one of his typical glass and steel structures, which would look very fine as an airport: but is it not just a little insensitive to its surroundings? It is, after all, set in the heart of Bloomsbury which still remains perhaps the finest collection of Georgian architecture in London. Several of the adjacent squares remain substantially true to their Georgian origins.
The new design ignores its surroundings. Adjacent to it is the north wing of the Museum, the Edward VII building, now dominated by the Joseph E Hotung Gallery — renamed in tribute to a recent benefactor. The King Edward building was not part of the original Smirke building, but was erected in the years after 1907 to the design of Sir J J Burnett, who produced a Beaux Arts design that well reflects the original Smirke design. On the west side it abuts Bedford Square — perhaps the most perfect of all the Georgian squares in London.
Admittedly, only 100 yards to the north is one of the most dreadful examples of insensitive architecture: the University of London Senate House, erected in the 1930s to the designs of Charles Holden. George Orwell used it in his novel 1984 as the prototype of the Ministry of Truth, providing proof — if proof is needed — that academics can be philistines. Ironically, it now has major health and safety problems and the whole of the upper part is being refurbished.
The new modernist development was opposed by many of the local conservation groups, notably the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee, as well as the Camden Civic Society and the Georgian Group. They achieved a great success in July 2009 when they succeeded in persuading Camden Council, by five votes to three, to reject the proposals. However the museum then had a public exhibition, attended by 1,011 local residents over four days. Of the 28% of attendees who completed a questionnaire, 92.7% agreed that the proposals ‘respect the Museum’s classical architecture’; only nine people disliked the architecture completely. Thus, a public consultation exercise and the local community groups reached entirely opposite conclusions: which do you believe?
In December 2009, after the BM submitted revised plans following a public consultation, Camden Council changed its mind and finally gave planning permission. So construction is about to begin. But, one wonders, what on earth the Trustees of the British Museum were doing when they appointed such an unsuitable architect. The trustees today are an odd bunch: part high-flying businessmen and bankers, part retired civil servants, and the usual sprinkling of the great and good. But few appear to have any particular knowledge of, or sensitivity to, the past. Let us hope that the building, when completed, works well, and that we will soon be able to visit some splendid exhibitions in a splendid new setting.
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