Great Court

The Great Court

Designed by Foster and Partners, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. It is a two-acre space enclosed by a spectacular glass roof with the world-famous Reading Room at its centre.

Great Court: history and design

In the original Robert Smirke design the courtyard was meant to be a garden. However, in 1852–7 the Reading Room and a number of bookstacks were built in the courtyard to house the library department of the Museum and the space was lost.

In 1997, the Museum’s library department was relocated to the new British Library building in St Pancras and there was an opportunity to re-open the space to public.

An architectural competition was launched to re-design the courtyard space. There were over 130 entries and it was eventually won by Lord Foster.

The competition brief had three aims:

  • Revealing hidden spaces
  • Revising old spaces
  • Creating new spaces

The £100 million project was supported by grants of £30 million from the Millennium Commission and £15.75 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Great Court was opened on 6 December 2000 by Her Majesty the Queen.

Great Court

The Great Court from the south-east corner

Revealing hidden spaces: the courtyard

The courtyard had been a lost space since 1857. The re-design of the Great Court meant that this hidden space could be seen again.

The design of the Great Court was loosely based on Foster’s concept for the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany. A key aspect of the design was that with every step in the Great Court the vista changed and allowed the visitor a new view on their surroundings.

Work on the Great Court's magnificent glass and steel roof began in September 1999. It was constructed out of 3,312 panes of glass, no two of which are the same.

At two acres, the Great Court increased public space in the Museum by forty per cent, allowing visitors to move freely around the main floor for the first time in 150 years.

Great Court

The Great Court and the outside of the Reading Room

Revising old spaces: the Ford Centre

Previously a storage room for Egyptian sculpture, the Ford Centre for Young Visitors provides dedicated facilities and a range of tailor-made educational programmes for the hundreds of thousands of young people who visit every year.

At weekends and during school holidays these areas are used for family and community events.

Ford Centre

Activities in the Ford Centre for Young Visitors

Creating new spaces: galleries, education facilities, visitor facilities and forecourt

Gallery space

The design of the Great Court provided two new gallery spaces. The Sainsbury Galleries house a display of objects from the Museum's Africa collection. The Wellcome Trust Gallery is home to a series of long term, cross-cultural, thematic exhibitions, currently based around Living and Dying. In addition to this a new space for temporary exhibitions, Room 35 – The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery – was also built.

Education facilities

Housed in the lower level of the Great Court, the Clore Education Centre comprises the:

  • BP Lecture Theatre
  • Hugh and Catherine Stevenson Theatre
  • Raymond and Beverly Sackler seminar room
  • Studio, used for art and craft activities
  • Claus Moser seminar room
  • Ford Centre for Young Visitors
  • Samsung Digital Discovery Centre 

The Clore Education Centre has enabled the Museum to expand its educational role. Its two auditoria are home to a daily programme of lectures, film and videos, as well as conferences, concerts and other performances related to cultural festivals or special exhibitions.

Five additional multi-purpose rooms are also used for other programmes ranging from informal 'drop-in' sessions to courses for the general public and teacher training.

Visitor facilities

The new space allowed for the construction of new facilities including the Court Restaurant on the upper level and the Court Cafés on the ground level of the Great Court.


A central part of the project on the South side of the site was the re-landscaping of the Museum forecourt, creating an impressive approach to the refurbished Weston Great Hall and the Great Court.

Wellcome Gallery

The Wellcome Trust Gallery