Mon, Jul 10, 2017 - Page 8 News List

British Museum to undergo revamp

The venue’s director unveils a plan to take the museum to the next level, which includes a wholesale redisplay of its collection

By Mark Brown  /  The Guardian

A museum assistant poses in front of statues of King Ptolemy II and Arsinoe from around 283 BC to 246 BC at the British Museum in London in May of last year.

Photo: AFP / Justin Tallis

The British Museum has unveiled plans for a 10-year and beyond transformation which will result in its Reading Room being brought back into use and its galleries telling “more coherent and compelling stories.”

The museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, used the publication of the museum’s annual review to give early details of what amounts to a wholesale redisplay of the permanent collection, an immense logistical task that will be done over time, he said, and without the museum having to close.

“Our vision will be to create a museum which tells more coherent and compelling stories of the cultures and artifacts we display to allow more comparisons to be made across cultures and timeframes,” he said.

“We want a walk around our permanent collection to be a voyage of discovery and learning for all.”


An integral part of the redisplay will be the museum’s Round Reading Room which, after the British Library left with its books in 1997, has proved something of a challenge in terms of knowing how to use it.

The plan is for the Grade I-listed room, where Karl Marx spent long days working on Das Kapital and Virginia Woolf went to find out the truth about women, to display objects from the permanent collection, offering visitors a general introduction to the British Museum, Fischer said.

The museum still has to go through a planning process on how precisely that might be achieved but “rest assured,” said Fischer, “the Round Reading Room is at the center of our planning. I can promise it will look absolutely stunning.”

From 2007 to 2014 the Reading Room was used for temporary exhibitions, such as The First Emperor and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the opening of the museum’s 35 [million] conservation and exhibitions center in 2014 means it is no longer needed for that purpose.

Fischer, who joined last year from the Dresden State Art Collections, said the wider plan was “about taking the museum to the next level.”

The museum had explored the interconnectedness of cultures in temporary exhibitions and in the A History of the World in 100 Objects radio series of his predecessor Neil MacGregor.

“We are planning now to make this an experience when you come to the collections, it is the next natural step. It is big and it has to be extremely well thought through. It is complex there are 2 [million] years of history.”

Fischer said it was still early days and there was no blueprint. The building and galleries needed renovation and funds would have to be raised.

There are no plans, however, to follow the example of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which closed for nearly a decade in order to carry out its renovation and redisplay.

Examples of where the museum could improve its displays include the Egypt galleries, where visitors can look at the Rosetta Stone or be awed by the colossal statue of King Ramesses II, said Fischer, but then have to go upstairs for the mummies.

There are also only two small rooms for what is “probably one of the most stunning Americas collections in the world.” In total, he said, 37 percent of the world’s landmass was absent from the displays.

“In a fast-changing and sometimes troubled world the museum has to continue to play its part in explaining the connectivity of cultures and our shared human identity,” he said. “Never has this been more urgent than now.”

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