A grand project to look forward to

When the British Library finally moves out, the British Museum has exciting new plans for the space; There is absolutely no indignity being inflicted on the Reading Room
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The Independent Online
The term grand projet entered the English language not long ago, and came to mean the kind of thing the French do better than us in the cultural sphere. Not everyone, of course, approves of the grand projet mentality, and not every actual grand projet has been wholly a success. I visited the Opra-Bastille in Paris not long ago, managing to coincide with a strike, and was able to look around backstage. It is an astonishing space. You feel that not just stage sets but whole film sets could be filed away in it with ease. Houses, cities, forests, deserts could be stored there. But you are also aware that the building itself commits the management to a fabulous level of expenditure. Grand opera does not have to be as grand as this.

But some projects are grand by their very nature, and there is no getting around it. The refurbishment of the Louvre was like that, and what excites a kind of generous envy in the British heart is to see the French government coming to a good decision about such a project and then willing the means, and willing the whole means, for its proper execution. One can take delight in a grand projet while at the same time remaining aware that most of the arts are underfunded. If money has been well spent, and the results are there for all to see, then the grand projet will redound to the general credit of public expenditure on the arts.

Anyway, there will be less cause for envy of the French when one or two of our own grand projects have borne fruit. The new Tate at Bankside is set fair to be a popular success. And it was not until this week that I realised the full scale of the plans for the British Museum, and their astonishing potential. The work can only begin when the British Library has moved out of the building, but Sir Norman Foster has been appointed consultant architect and an appeal is under way.

It helps to climb up on the roof, as I did last week (I had permission), to appreciate the scale of the enterprise. There are seven-and-a-half acres of roof. In the centre stands the Reading Room, surrounded by the buildings which house its stacks, like a great kidney enclosed in its suet. The kidney is to stay. The suet is to be chucked out.

When the museum people explain this, they are quick to add that the buildings that house the stacks are utilitarian infilling dating from the Thirties and Fifties. This is made absolutely clear, so that no one will rush off to Camden council and persuade it to slap a preservation order on the stacks, in which case the whole project would become impossible.

Once the stacks are carted away, you are left with a neo-classical courtyard, which was the original plan for the museum, plus the huge Reading Room, which was an afterthought. An immensely handsome afterthought, of course, but still an afterthought.

Another thing you notice about the museum people is that whenever they talk about the Reading Room, a note of cautious reverence enters their voices. They want you to be left in no doubt that there is absolutely no question at all of any kind of indignity being inflicted on the Reading Room. Indeed, it will be restored to its original decorative condition and become accessible to the public for the first time.

This cautious reverence is no doubt the legacy of the long disputes during the great divorce between the British Library and the BM. The Round Reading Room still retains its iconic status and its ability to cause passions to flare up. So the museum people handle it like a bomb.

However, even if you were of a mind to deplore the loss of the Reading Room to the British Library, you cannot help becoming interested in the newly-to-be-revealed Great Court, with its faades concealed and visible only from the roof. Suddenly you feel outraged on behalf of those faades and their architect, Sir Robert Smirke. Suddenly your fingers itch to get those stacks torn down.

The thinking behind the new plan is very like that of the Louvre renovation, where a glass pyramid provides the entrance to a large underground space in which you buy a ticket and decide which of three ways to go. Also in this space are shops and places to eat. The worst thing about the Louvre is the 45-minute queue to get in through the pyramid. After that all is well. The facilities are well up to requirements.

All the shortlisted architects saw that by putting glass over the Great Court you could create a new centre for the British Museum, and in Sir Norman's winning design it is this area which serves the same function as the space beneath IM Pei's pyramid. Without the exterior of the building being in any way altered, and without many of the galleries being touched, the whole experience of visiting the museum will be utterly transformed.

If you enter from Great Russell Street you will be able to pass directly from the present, somewhat cramped front hall into this spacious courtyard, from which you will be able to head off in whichever direction takes your fancy. The Round Reading Room will have acquired rings, like Saturn, forming oval mezzanines.

Most dramatic of all will be the increase in overall space (40 per cent of the building is at present occupied by the British Library) and the return to the museum of the Ethnographic Collection from the Museum of Mankind. While the bookish element will have gone, what will return to the building is its global interest in culture.

In the case of the Louvre project, the French government was happy to stump up the whole sum. The British Museum people regard such readiness with envy. However last week Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the Development Trust, exuded confidence that the project would meet the requirements of the Millennium Fund and that the remaining finances would be found from other sources. The aim is to collect £6m by public donation towards the estimated £60m cost.

It does not seem such a phenomenal sum to raise, considering the enormous impact of the result - much larger, proportionally, than that of the Sainsbury Wing on the National Gallery. To say that is not to belittle the Sainsbury Wing. When I go there I always think someone ought to remind people that the gallery is going through a golden period. It seems everything fell into place very well. And the British Museum has the same prospect in view. It is worth remembering; it is something to look forward to.