Senior figures at the British Museum will next year realise a dream when they display the largest Viking ship ever discovered as part of a major new blockbuster exhibition.
This will be made possible by one of the most significant building projects in the institution’s history, which is on budget and on track to open next March.
The museum revealed the first glimpse of the £135 million project called the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre today, which will change how it displays exhibitions, and will also provide research, testing, conservation and storage space.
British Museum director Neil MacGregor hailed the project as “one of the largest redevelopment projects in the museum’s 260-year history” adding there would be a “huge impact” on the scholarly community.
The existing facilities have frustrated some attempts at bringing the larger antiquities to its exhibitions. In the 2008 Hadrian exhibition, the museum had to pass up a large sculpture lent from Rome as it was too large for the Reading Room, the site of a number of its blockbuster exhibitions.
“We hope this will not happen in the new building,” Mr MacGregor said. So much so, he added, that the first show in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery will focus on the Vikings and include the largest known Viking ship.
He said: “We have wanted to do it for some time but we could not have done it in the spaces available before, so it’s the one we’ve been waiting to put on.” Carolyn Marsden-Smith, head of exhibitions at the British Museum said bringing in the ship would be “quite special”.
The nine level centre, designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, is in the north-west corner of the British Museum’s Bloomsbury estate.
The Great Court development at the turn of the century, which cost £120m, was “a much more visible change,” Mr MacGregor said, “this is really about the functioning of the museum largely in the areas that the public doesn’t see, but which are absolutely fundamental.”
As well as more room for exhibitions the centre, which is the same size as 14 Olympic swimming pools, will provide storage, laboratories and studios.
Artefacts held offsite will be brought in and stored. About 175 British Museum staff will move into the re-developed site when it is fully opened.
Demolition work on the site, which cleared a disused bindery building from 1920s and some portacabins, started in December 2010. The frame of the building is now in place, and construction is expected to complete in the autumn.
Tony Spence, head of collection services at the British Musem, said: “This is a major leap forward for the museum. When most of it was thought of the internal combustion engine was in its infancy.”
The centre will be close to 45 metres high, although 19 of those will be underground. Over 4,360 muck lorries were used to clear the site, and 1,778 tonnes of steel put in. There is enough concrete used in the basement to cover two tennis courts 30 metres high.
The British Museum is the “largest lender to exhibitions around the world,” Mr MacGregor said, with thousands of objects loaned out every year in the UK and around the world. Yet it is one of the few major museums without a loading bay, making the process of moving artefacts hugely complicated.
The new site will include a loading bay, and the largest truck lift in Europe, allowing objects to be safely prepared, packed and put on lorries. Mr MacGregor said: “This is what will change and greatly expand, we hope, the programme of loans around the UK and the world.”
The project is 80 per cent funded, and is backed by the Government, as well as the Linbury Trust and the Monument Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.