By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.


Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.


Age of Enlightenment


HOK's restoration of the British Museum's King's Library revives a major architectural and exhibition space When it was founded in 1753 (opened 1759) the British Museum was the world's first national public museum and library open to all.

Its foundation 'drew on the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment to proclaim that all arts and sciences had a connection with each other and that the museum was founded for the advancement and improvement of all branches of knowledge'.

1Later, in the age of the polymath, following Newton, its holdings expanded to include not only ethnography, native art and archaeology but also paintings, books, manuscripts and natural history. The founding collections continued to be built on. Following the death of George III in 1820, his son George IV offered his father's library to the museum, with the proviso that it be kept together. At 60,000 volumes the King's collection needed significant space, much more than the then Montagu House in Bloomsbury, the library's existing building, could provide. Robert Smirke (1781-1867) was commissioned to design the museum's first major addition, the King's Library, built between 1823 and 1827.

Since then the growth of knowledge and intellectual specialisation have rendered impractical the original intention of holding a national encyclopaedia of knowledge in one place, collections being split between the resultant institutions such as the Natural History Museum for botany and geology, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Library. The King's Library collection eventually became part of this fragmentation, moving in 1998 to the central glass and bronze tower of Colin St John Wilson's British Library at St Pancras.

The vacated library building at the British Museum forms what is now the east range bordering Foster's Great Court scheme. While its exterior is plain - walled in Portland stone and roofed in copper - its interior is a more grand celebration of royal munificence in Greek Revival style, novel at the time and an Enlightenment link back to an earlier age of reason, that of ancient Greece.On entering through the portico from the Great Court, the first impression is of a grand entrance hall, which opens out into wings either side. Stepping forward, the impression changes as the space is understood as a single volume. It is 91.4m long, 12.5m wide in the wings, broadening to 17m for the entrance volume, and all 9m high.

Robert Smirke strongly structured this volume into seven zones, which have been taken up by the museum in creating its new 'Enlightenment' exhibition, divided into seven localised themes, such as 'Classifying the World', 'Ancient Scripts' and 'The Natural World'.

Smirke's strongest structuring occurs in the entrance volume, with its greater depth and its columns and pilasters.Here are four Derbyshire granite columns, the shafts costing only some £15 apiece, but with hand polishing and Corinthian capitals in Derbyshire alabaster, eventually costing in excess of £1,000. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the other four pairs of columns Smirke first considered became moremodest pilasters faced in white marble. Smirke was the architect of the three then attached to the Office of Works - the others were Nash and Soane - with the reputation for delivering on time and budget.And he did (as did HOK). The Smirke library's total cost of £130,000 came very close to his estimate of £129,200. HOK's construction cost of £5 million was on budget, with a construction period of 54 weeks, six weeks less than originally programmed.

While this entrance volume ceiling is ordered around a central plaster circle, the ceilings of the two wings are ordered around three ovals. This division of space is reflected in the floor, where the three zones below the ovals are of plain oak boards separated by bands of cruciform pattern oak and mahogany boarding.

The original ceiling structure, which supports smaller galleries above, was novel - a pioneering use of long, flanged cast-iron beams. Between the beams is fireproof floor construction based on arched steel sheets 3mm thick. The beams withstood incendiary bomb damage in 1940 (it was repaired in 1951-52), with additional steel-truss strengthening introduced generally in 1995. The ceilings themselves were locally cracked but fundamentally sound.As for other parts of this project, the works were mostly painstaking restoration.

Ceiling repair was the work of 25 conservators - all part of a general strategy of restoring Smirke's original decorative scheme. Paint analysis showed that the original was a pale cream with a stronger yellow in the main circle and ovals, with George IV's crown and monogram as a gilded boss in the centre of the circle.

Other, later, gilding has been overpainted.

Floorboarding is iron-dowelled on its edges at 175-300mm intervals, with metal tongues where board ends abut, so the floor is not readily lifted. Some 500 local repairs were needed.

Trial sanding to remove chewing gum, cleaning products and grime since its first opening left the timber very light. So the general treatment has been a light sanding and sealing, with new insertions stained to match. The floor thus retains some patina of use.

Floor joists are founded on sleeper walls on a crawlspace of jack arches.Openings with hatches have been made in some of the arches to allow two-way distribution of services. Computer modelling showed that the ideal of 21¦C and 50 per cent relative humidity was not achievable and a compromise of 22(¦2)¦C and 50(¦10) per cent humidity has been adopted. Environmental conditions are achieved with displacement ventilation, input to the library via larger, replacement floor grilles plus new ones based on designs by Smirke's younger bother Sydney found in the museum's west wing. Return air is drawn down four of the spiral staircase shafts. The high-level sash windows along the east and west are protected by motorised fabric blinds under timing control to provide solar shading including UV protection.

Walls are all lined with the original book presses (cases) from floor to ceiling, with an access gallery at around mid-height. These bear a strong resemblance to presses in William Chambers' octagonal library at Buckingham House (now 'Palace') built in 1766-67, which contained George III's library during his lifetime.Originally the museum presses were faced with metal grilles, but these were replaced with glass in the 1850s due to dirt in the atmosphere and in readiness for the unlimited public access while the 1851 Great Exhibition was drawing visitors to London. The presses are not separately air conditioned, limiting which objects can be displayed in them.

The 216 ground-level presses are organised to reinforce the exhibition zoning into seven spaces, following Smirke's ceiling and floor design. Groups of four presses falling between zones are filled with books from the House of Commons' reserve collection to mark the transition between these zones. Within zones, groups of eight or nine presses contain objects from the museum's permanent collection, set out in a style reminiscent of the private display of collections - for scholarship and curiosity - common at the time of the museum's foundation. Reuse of the presses has increased the museum's total available display space by around 10 per cent and permitted some 3,000 items to be displayed, many for the first time.

To explore the presses' potential for displaying objects, particularly to determine the method and level of illumination, a mock-up press was built. Of the five working prototypes for the lighting, a system of 180 fibre-optic sources per press was chosen, two or three adjacent presses being fed by a projector set out of sight on the gallery (where other electrical, safety and security equipment also resides). The light sources point into reflectors either side of the door within the presses, providing gentle and diffuse rather than directional effects. An early drawing revealed a 125mm void behind the presses, which provided access routes for the 200km of fibre-optic cabling.

The timber-boarded backs to the presses were originally unpainted but are now a dark red, except for those at the north and south ends of the library, which, for historical record, have been left untouched behind the books.

On the gallery, presses have sliding doors that can be left open. The balustrades have been restored to their original treatment, with reburnished brass rails and re-gilded uprights.

Scagliola panels above the presses and in the window reveals have been repaired, cleaned and waxed. Everything in the library has at least been cleaned.

When the library first opened in 1828 the floor was uninterrupted. But within a few years floor-mounted display cabinets and library tables had been introduced. The six original cases remaining have been restored and additional new replicas made for the new exhibition. Cabling comes from below, using floor-box designs developed for the royal palaces. The display cases are interspersed with sculptures on plinths, intentionally evocative of libraries in large country houses of the Enlightenment period.

It is a somewhat backhanded compliment to HOK's sensitive approach that for those not previously familiar with the rundown state of the King's Library, the building could appear untouched. This refurbishment revives and reopens to us one of the grand public architectural spaces in Britain. And for the museum it is a major new asset.

Footnotes 1. Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. Editors Kim Sloan and Andrew Burnett. The British Museum Press. 2003.

This new book briefly discusses the library and its restoration, then follows the exhibition's seven themes over, roughly, 1680-1820, concentrating on the new thinking and the contemporary



Simon Douch, Tony Barnard, Paul Duggleby, Philip Baker, John Purcell, Jonathan Howe PROJECT MANAGER Drivers Jonas ELECTRICAL AND MECHANICAL ENGINEER Klimaat Consulting Engineers STUCTURAL ENGINEER Alan Baxter & Associates COST CONSULTANT Davis Langdon & Everest LIGHTING DESIGNER Light and Design Associates SPECIALIST ADVISORS Richard Ireland Ian Bristow PLANNING SUPERVISOR PCM MAIN PROJECT WORKS Mansell Construction Services ADVANCED WORKS CONTRACTOR St Blaise Conservation SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Conservation, cleaning and repair to book presses, floor and railings Plowden Smith; conservation of stonework and scagliola Holdon Conservation; decorating K & L McLoughlin; floor sanding and finishing Floorcraft; electrical services Capri; mechanical services Priory; fibre-optic lighting system L & G Kotzolt


Trustees of the British Museum www. thebritishmuseum. ac. uk HOK International www. hok. com Drivers Jonas www. driversjonas. com Alan Baxter & Associates www. alanbaxter. co. uk Davis Langdon & Everest www. davislangdon. com Light and Design Associates www. lightanddesign. co. uk PCM www. pcmsafety. com Mansell Construction Services www. mansell. plc. uk

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters