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The British Museum

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The British Museum
As the renown of ancient Greek and Roman societies exploded in Europe in the eighteenth century, the western elite developed a strong admiration for the accomplishments of the classical era, most evidently grace and purity of classical architecture. More and more new buildings were built in the style of the old, and a neoclassical revival was born. Many of Europe’s greatest buildings hail from this period; London in particular is brimming with impressive neoclassical architecture. The British Museum is one of the greatest of these (Cherry).
Built during the revival by Robert Smirke, the Museum immediately evokes a great temple of antiquity, appropriate given its contents. The Great Russell Street façade, adorning the southern entrance, is a textbook example of the classical style; when I stood in the plaza outside, the building seemed to wrap around me with its grand ionic colonnade of 44 emanating from a central portico spanning eight columns upon which sits Sir Richard Westcott’s ornate frieze the Progress of Civilization, itself intended to be a preview of the wondrous spirit and content of the museum (“Architecture”). This facade is a perfectly executed architectural feature, making a strong stylistic statement in a manner coherent with the building’s remainder and the purpose of its interior. The rest of the building’s exterior that can be seen from the street lacks the dramatic impact of the southern façade, yet still possesses a sense of grandeur, tall pane glass windows flanked by ionic half columns. The classical column/pediment design continues, firmly establishing the building as classical in style.
Cost concerns dictated that the building would be constructed on a cast iron frame (a new technology at the time) filled in with Haytor granite brick, but the public facing areas would be encased in Portland stone, the traditional and prototypically “British” material (a great number of public works in London and the country at large employ Portland stone, including Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s cathedral), which would accomplish two major goals; its use falls in line with the Museum’s purpose as a celebration of Britain, and its visual characteristics make it a good stand-in for the stone used in Classical temples. The innards of the building also do not forsake its national identity; Haytor granite was a very popular building material on the British Isles in its own right, and cast-iron framing was a new technique pioneered by the British during the industrial revolution (“Devon Haytor”).
The circular Reading Room at the center of the Great Court is another classical feature, clearly taking inspiration from the Roman Pantheon; in fact, its dome is second in the world in width only to the Pantheon. On the interior, gilded ribs originate at an oculus and run down the walls into the frames which hold the books themselves. In between these ribs, just before the tops of the shelves, are inset windows supported by Corinthian half-columns. From the outside, even though the huge dome can’t really be seen on account of the glass roof of the great court (itself another distinguishing architectural feature, albeit a departure from the classical style of the rest of the building), but the Greek vibe is fully present thanks to the location of the reading room in the center of the four quadrangles of the British Museum proper, facing the reading room with a portico of four ionic columns. Given that the reading room houses many extremely important ancient manuscripts, the gravity and glory of its contents are properly represented by its central positioning in the museum, the striking Court and its roof, and the impressive interior of the library itself.
The material and architecture of the British Museum drive home the point that this is a strong building, meant to celebrate great works of ancient times and those who uncovered them for a long time coming. It fits naturally into its British character and the pantheon of other grand architectural works of London on account of its stone fronting, and its timeless and well executed design promise that it will remain an impressive structure to all those who look upon it. Works Cited
"Architecture." The British Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. .
Cherry, Bridget, Nikolaus Pevsner, Nikolaus Pevsner, and Nikolaus Pevsner. The Buildings of England: London IV: North. London: Penguin, 1998. 288-95. Print.
"Devon Haytor Granite Railway." Morning Post [London] 12 July 1825: n. pag. Legendary Dartmoor. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. .

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