Inside the courtyard the crowds of students, tourists and casual visitors milled around on the steps below the Ionic pillars or sat unsociably in uniform rows on the wooden seats, eating uncomfortably from crisp packets and drinking from cans.
Most of the courtyard was set aside as parking spaces for more than 100 cars of museum staff. The neat lawns had Keep Off The Grass signs.
The British Museum forecourt is a typical British waste of space. It could be a premier tourist space in itself, devoted to cafe tables, perhaps with music and even visited by museum staff or actors telling the stories of some of the exhibits for young visitors. At the very least, visitors in summer could sit on the grass.
This though would mean the cars moving and senior staff either parking elsewhere or using public transport. As well as freeing this space for visitors, if transformed, it could also bring much- needed continental-style cafe life to a cultural centre.
The museum is not the only major public building in London where forecourts are clogged with cars. Horse Guards Parade, site of the Trooping the Colour ceremony, is packed with civil servants' cars, blocking a vista of St James's Park in defiance of a recommendation to the Government by an expert committee. The 18th-century William Chambers courtyard outside the Courtauld Institute Galleries, off the Strand, is taken up by cars belonging to Inland Revenue staff.
Yesterday at the British Museum, visitors differed in their thoughts about what use the forecourt should be put to, but were unanimous that the cars should be removed.
Jean Marc Hascoet, a 24-year- old French student, said: 'In Paris there would be a terrace cafe to add to the atmosphere. Beauborg modern art museum has a plaza with cafes, the Musee d'Orsay has something similar.'
A couple from Philadelphia on their first visit to London, said: 'In America there would be tables outside an institution of this stature, somewhere to sit in comfort, drink and eat, and yes, music would be nice. London is nice, it's neat and clean, but that sort of facility is lacking.'
Other students from America and various European countries all agreed that the cars should be removed and tables and chairs put in their place. However, a Belgian student, Dewi Wijngaarde, 22, disagreed. She said: 'I think a cafe might spoil the atmosphere of the museum. The cars should definitely be taken away, but instead of a cafe I would just like us to be able to sit on the grass and talk, maybe have a picnic.'
Ben Whittaker, head of the Gulbenkian Foundation, which has been conducting research into brightening up public spaces, said: 'These unnecessarily parked cars are a desecration of a great facade which is one of London's main architectural glories. The small number of disabled staff could be provided with underground parking and there are excellent bus and Tube services near by for the rest of the staff.'
A number of British Museum staff said privately that they were dismayed at the use of the forecourt for parking spaces for senior staff, and the continual closure of the main gate to visitors. It was an 'insult to the public', one said.
A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: 'We do realise that the cars are not the most aesthetic addition to the forecourt and one day the situation might be reviewed. But the museum has over 1,000 staff and the British Library, presently based here, also has over 1,000 staff. Some staff have to work very unsociable hours so there has to be some parking facilities.'
Pavement cafes in Britain?
IS THERE wasted space in our cities? Could historical or cultural open spaces be put to better use, such as for cafes, so that they become more pleasurable for tourists and city dwellers and their families? Please write with suggestions to Pavement Cafes, Home News, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB, or fax your responses to 071 956 1558.