A year ago, the British Museum in London opened its new extension designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners to provide a flexible gallery for special exhibitions, plus storage and conservation studios for the Museum. The building externally provides a modern addition to the Museum, but how has the new temporary exhibition gallery worked in practice? Over the last year, it has been the home to a number of blockbuster exhibitions – “The Vikings – Life and Legend” and “Ming – 50 years that changed China”, and now “Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art”. The gallery was probably at its best for the Viking exhibition which had the immense exhibit of the remnants of a ship exhibit at its heart to provide orientation. Otherwise, it is no doubt a flexible space, but a little rambling for the visitor who loses a sense of direction or any sense of the outside world until the exit into a sterile glass-topped corridor that leads to the inevitable shop. Here, a year later, the flat glass roof is grubby and covered in dirt. Given that museum budgets are never going to allow for frequent cleans, it would have been better to have provided a fritted or artistic pattern to the glass, which would also have made it a visually less-austere space.
The gallery currently has an exhibition focused on classical Grecian art and its depiction of the human body. Over 150 sculptural and ceramic works on show take us from the simple abstract forms of prehistoric figurines to the realism of Alexander the Great, with a final reference to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Many of the works are Roman copies of sculptures now lost but a selection of work from the Elgin Marbles helps fill the gap with original Greek sculptures.
Perhaps it is a reflection of how lucky we are with the British Museum collections, but it is also a disappointment that 90% of the exhibits are from the Museum itself with a few supplementary works from museums in places such as Berlin, Munich, Rome and New York. Visitors to the main galleries in the Museum will find some of the works they wish to see are missing and in the special exhibition gallery for which they have to pay. The most stunning loan is from Croatia, and it is almost worth seeing the exhibition for this alone. The first century BC bronze Apoxyomenos , or statue of an athlete removing the oil and sand from his body, was discovered at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea off the Croatian island of Lošinj by a recreational diver in 1996, The statue, with red copper-inlaid lips and nipples, is thought to be a Hellenistic or Roman replica of a bronze original from the second quarter or the end of the 4th century BC.
What will happen to the old Reading Room? Opened in 1857, it was used for special exhibitions from 2007 until 2013, always a constrained space which has now been replaced by the new gallery. It remains closed, while the Museum carries out consultations with staff, stakeholders and the public. This is a magnificent space at the heart of the Museum and needs something truly imaginative for the future.