The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 109

Issue 109

Nov / Dec 2009



Museum calls for fund to study treasure finds

Missing Stonehenge circle did not come from Preselis

with Important revision to Stonehenge bluestone theory
An interim note on the latest developments, by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins

Found: "The great lost monument of Cambridge"

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Staffordshire Gold

Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer

Tracking Hunters and Gatherers on the Continental Limits

with Bibliography

Remembering the Great War with Lutyens

Extending the British Museum


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at excavation websites

Matt Ritchie introduces Forest Heritage Scotland

CBA Correspondent

Don Henson looks at the Marsh Award shortlist


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Extending the British Museum

With cramped offices, working and laboratory rooms that need modernising and collections stored at remote outposts, behind the scenes the British Museum seems increasingly out of step with its popularity and its leading, innovative activities and image. Earlier this year it announced its solution in a major development. It would be ready in 2012 and would include a much-needed temporary exhibition gallery. In July planners turned it down. Mike Pitts reviews a proposal of huge significance for world archaeology.

Why does the BM want to be bigger?
To "ensure the museum", it said in April 2009, "maintains its position as a leading institution for the study of human culture, in London, in Britain and the World through an upgrade of key facilities". These would include a special exhibitions centre of 1,100m², to continue and expand on the present role of the Reading Room (home of shows such as Moctezuma and Hadrian), where planning consent for such use ends in 2012; updated science and conservation laboratories and library; improved collection handling, with secure loading bays and a dedicated area for the preparation of loans; and below-ground collection storage, with better access for students, academics and the public, in modern, environmentally-controlled systems.
Who are the architects?
Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, an internationally admired practice whose work includes Heathrow Terminal 5, the Welsh Assembly, Cardiff and the Pompidou Centre, Paris. They won the commission by competition in 2007.
Where would it go?
In the north-west corner at the rear of the BM site, currently offices.
What would it look like?
Five linked "pavilions" (cube-like towers) of Portland stone and textured glass would offer 17,000m² across seven floors, mostly in courtyard space hidden from view. One pavilion would rise over Montague Place, where two reproduction Georgian houses built in the 70s would be demolished. These abut the grade I-listed King Edward VII galleries (1914). No new build would exceed present BM rooflines.
What is the bill?
£135m. In July the BM said two thirds of this was in place, including a pledge by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and a large sum from an anonymous donor. A few days later the DCMS said the promised £22.5m was no longer guaranteed.
What do other architects think of it?
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) called it an "intelligent response... of excellent design quality" to a "difficult brief and highly constrained site", praising the relationship between the existing building and the extension, the "seamless circulation of people from the Great Court to the new exhibition spaces", and the choice of materials, which offer "a rare opportunity to allow some views into the British Museum from the perimeter". The extensioncould "provide a fitting termination to the views down Malet Street", and "would be a significant improvement over the existing setting".
However, CABE felt the "expression of the new building on Montague Place could be even bolder in appearance and status". Kieran Long in the Architects' Journal called it "a world-class museum facility, but a rather nondescript piece of architecture", and comments ranged from "subtle" and "restrained" to "dull".
What does English Heritage think?
In July 2008, Philip Davies, planning development director at EH, said, "It is difficult for [the BM] to demonstrate why [a grade I listed book bindery and the replica Georgian buildings] can't be kept". In April 2009, after continued consultation and design development, EH said the "proposals have the potential to provide a first-class architectural response to the aim of achieving the museum's objectives".
What are the objections?
The Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee saw a "lethal combination" of a "bloated design brief and inappropriate architects", calling the proposal "far too big" and complaining of damage to facades and gallery interiors; it asked for another design just one floor above ground. In a joint letter with the Camden Civic Society to Simon Thurley, EH chief executive, the committee called EH's support "unbalanced and superficial", accusing EH of "a desire to promote modern architecture". Specifically, the two groups objected to the loss of daylight to existing buildings, and views out from them, singling out Sir Robert Smirke's arched library room and the North Stair of the King Edward VII building; three new openings into the Great Court; and the demolition of the replica houses.
The Georgian Group, Save Britain's Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society, Heritage of London Trust and the London Society raised similar objections – if more tactfully expressed – about the proposal's impact.
Why was it turned down?
Councillor Paul Braithwaite, at the planning debate on July 23, called the proposal "over-development in a most dramatic fashion". Camden planning officers recommended approval, but the council refused permission by five votes to four, for 10 reasons. In sum these are: the structure's "excessive bulk" would harm the listed buildings and their setting, and detract from the conservation area; the development would encourage non-sustainable modes of transport with traffic disruption and danger to pedestrians; it would not enhance biodiversity or use energy sustainably; and it would not help local employment. Listed building and conservation area consent were also refused.
What will the British Museum do?
Working with RSH+P, the BM said on 17 September, it would submit revised plans for what it now calls a World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. One pavilion would go below ground ("in many ways... beneficial for the scientific research facilities"), and spaces between the others would rise from 2m to 3m, letting more daylight onto "windows that face onto the new building from the north". Director Neil MacGregor said the changes "do not compromise the delivery of the essential facilities".

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