On not being overwhelmed by the largest covered square in Europe

Created in 2000 by Foster + Partners the Great Court is the main circulation space for access to the galleries of The British Museum. Prior to the creation of the covered courtyard the museum’s linear plan meant that visitors had to retrace their steps to get from one gallery to another.

Originally a courtyard garden containing the celebrated rotunda British Library Reading Room, the space was enclosed by the BuroHappold engineered glazed canopy to create the largest covered square in Europe.

In a review of the new space Jonathan Glancey wrote in The Guardian ‘This newly excavated and brilliantly remodelled courtyard is likely to become one of the most popular, and certainly the busiest, meeting places in London this side of the concourses of Waterloo and Victoria stations.’ He was spot on right.

Over six million people a year visit The British Museum. They mostly enter through the Great Court which contains information points, a bookshop, café and stairs up and down to the restaurant, learning spaces and temporary exhibition galleries.

The space is big enough to accommodate large numbers of people but not if they clog up in the main entrance portico. This was the problem we were asked to solve.

We recognised that too much information on too many signs or ‘stele’ (totems) as they were referred to, sometimes at a height not visible through crowds, was delaying decision making and creating the lag as visitors stood to read and orient themselves in the unexpectedly massive and startlingly beautiful space.

Our first decision was to separate the museum wayfinding information from promotional messaging about current and future exhibitions. This meant we could cut down the quantity of wayfinding stele, from 19 to 10, immediately reducing the amount of clutter and information to be taken in. Wayfinding information was placed above head height on the stele.

Promotional messaging was displayed on banners at high level around the perimeter of the Great Court.

All graphics were matched to The British Museum’s overall identity, overseen by John McConnell. We introduced a new beacon colour at the top of the wayfinding stele that manages to work in the frequently changing green tinged light that floods through the immense glass canopy.

Much testing was taking place to search for a shade of red that could cope with the shifting light. Fortunately, the appearance of a catering manager walking the breadth of the space wearing red jeans in a shade that we could see worked solved the problem. The beacon red matches those jeans perfectly!