The courtyard at the centre of the British Museum was one of London's long-lost spaces. Originally a garden, soon after its completion in the mid-nineteenth century it was filled by the round Reading Room and its associated bookstacks. Without this space the Museum was like a city without a park. This project is about its reinvention.

With over five million visitors annually, the British Museum is as popular as the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, in the absence of a centralised circulation system it was congested and difficult to navigate. The departure of the British Library was the catalyst for removing the bookstacks and recapturing the courtyard as a new public focus. The Great Court is entered from the Museum's principal level and connects all the surrounding galleries. Within the space there are information points, a bookshop and café. At its heart is the magnificent volume of the Reading Room, now an information centre and library of world cultures, which for the first time in its history is open to all. Broad staircases encircling the Reading Room lead to a temporary exhibitions gallery and a restaurant terrace. Beneath the courtyard are the Sainsbury African Galleries, an education centre and facilities for schoolchildren.

The glazed canopy that makes all this possible is a fusion of state-of-the-art engineering and economy of form. Its unique geometry is designed to span the irregular gap between the drum of the Reading Room and the courtyard facades, and forms both the primary structure and the framing for the glazing, which is designed to reduce solar gain. As a cultural square, the Court also resonates beyond the confines of the museum, forming a new link in the pedestrian route from the British Library to Covent Garden, the river and the South Bank. To complement this artery, the Museum's forecourt was restored to form a new civic space. Together with the Great Court, it is a major new amenity for London.

Sketches + Drawings




Norman Foster

“Making an intervention within a building on the scale of the British Museum – one that has grown and evolved over a period of 150 years – is like looking at a city in microcosm: its fabric is the product of many periods and styles.”

2003 RIBA Award citation

“The Great Court is a welcome and powerful addition to the rich cultural experiences of London.”

Derek Walker

“The Great Court is a much needed in intervention in the ongoing development saga of ‘the old curiosity shop’ in Bloomsbury.”

Architecture Today, February 2001

Richard Cork

“The great court is spellbinding enough to detain all who wonder there. Walking in from the entrance hall is like entering a magical realm, where everything seduces us with a radiant apprehension light’s transfiguring power.”

the Times, 4 December 2000

Deyan Sudjic

“As a visitor you are aware of the powerful presence of the Great Court even before you reach it. The meticulously restored front hall serves as a prelude.”

Richard Dorment

“Foster has given us the most surprising and most sensationally beautiful space in London.”

The Daily Telegraph, 29 November 2001

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1994
  • Completion: 2000
  • Area: 19,000m²
  • Height: 33m
  • Capacity: 1000
  • Client: Trustees of the British Museum
  • Structural Engineer: Buro Happold
  • Quantity Surveyor: Northcroft Nicholson
  • M+E Engineer: Buro Happold
  • Lighting Engineer: Claude Engle Lighting Consultant


  • Marble Architecture Award – Joint winner in the ‘External Facings’ category,
  • The London Borough of Camden Building Quality Awards – Highly Commended,
  • RIBA Award
  • ECCS European Steel Design Award
  • National Heritage Museum of the Year Award 2000/2001
  • Camden Design Awards
  • Civic Trust Award
  • British Construction Industry Awards Major Project Category – Highly Commended,
  • Institute of Civil Engineers - 'Special Award' with Buro Happold (and Mace),
  • DuPont Benedictus Awards, Special Recognition


The roof covers an area of 6,000m2 and weighs 800 tonnes (478 tonnes steel / 315 tonnes of glass).
The 3,312 panels of glass are screenprinted with small dots on 50% of their surface - a technique called 'fritting'. The fritting filters ultraviolet rays and reduces solar gain.
The courtyard is 96m long (length of façade of Buckingham Palace) x 72m wide equivalent to the size of Wembley football pitch

Related Press Release:

Get Directions

Opening Hours:

The Museum is free to all visitors and open daily, 10.00-17.30
Closure of galleries will start 10 minutes before
the published closing time:
Saturday - Thursday, 17.20
Friday, 20.20
The Museum is closed on
1 January, 24, 25, 26 December.