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The pounds 135m extension that hardly anyone will notice: Rogers refit offers the British Museum a vast, almost secret new space

July 9, 2014

Oliver Wainwright



It seems entirely appropriate that the British Museum, a building bursting with the loot of emperors, kings and pharaohs, should be extended by lords. Lord Foster brought in the green-tinged bulge of the Great Court roof in 2000, a dazzling canopy for a cafe that injected a dose of millennial sparkle into the middle of the dusty warren. Now Lord Rogers' office has completed a pounds 135m expansion, adding conservation labs and a storage space with the combined volume of 14 Olympic swimming pools. It is one of the biggest projects in the museum's 260-year history - but you might never even know it was there.

What Norman Foster did for front-of-house amid great fanfare, Richard Rogers has done for the back, almost in secret. Cleverly slotted into a gap between two wings in the museum's north-west corner between seven listed buildings, the grandly named World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) is something of an iceberg.

Plunging 20 metres beneath the streets of Bloomsbury, the complex is 70% below ground. It is the most mega of London's mega-basements, not for private cinemas and bowling alleys, but for the care and conservation of the world's priceless treasures.

Housed in four modular pavilions above ground, only one of which fronts on to the street, the project brings the museum's collection and conservation functions together on one site for the first time, along with a loading bay and a decent space for temporary exhibitions.

For an institution of such might, which last year loaned 5,000 objects to more than 300 venues, it has long operated in conditions worthy of a Carry On film. Lorries have had to reverse in off the busy street, through the narrow front gate to the public courtyard, from where priceless artefacts were hauled up the front steps by night and through the double doors of the reading room.

The architecture has limited what the museum can borrow: on one occasion in 2008, a vast sculpture of emperor Antoninus - loaned from the Vatican - wouldn't fit through the door and remained stranded in the Great Court. Storage and conservation have been scattered like medieval cottage industries between the basements of Russell Square and canal-side sheds in Hackney.

In what the director, Neil MacGregor, describes as a "transformative addition", the WCEC catapults the museum's logistics into the 21st century. And the staff can barely conceal their excitement about their new toys. A 42-tonne truck lift ("the biggest in Europe") can now ferry vast chunks of antiquity down to the 5,000 sq m storage levels, while the same trucks and their forklifts can reverse straight into a 70-metre-long, column-free exhibition hall, accessed by visitors straight off the Great Court. The immense volume has already been exploited in the opening display, which included the longest Viking warship ever found. Fifty years' worth of Ming treasures will soon be on their way.

The project is led by Rogers' partner Graham Stirk, responsible for the luxury residential fortresses of One Hyde Park, Neo Bankside and Riverlight in Nine Elms. The building shares these projects' ruthless efficiency and slick finish. The sharp, modular aesthetic thankfully feels more appropriate to the world of institutional science labs than apartment blocks, and benefits by being mostly hidden away.

The elevations that are visible to the street are crisp, inoffensive and intentionally back-of-house. They pick up on the structural grid and cornice line of the adjacent Edwardian wing - itself a steel frame clad in stone - but strip everything back to its component parts. Wafer-thin planes of Portland stone and planks of cast glass hang like taut sheets of lined paper. Flanked by long panels of horizontal louvres, the pavilions look like scaled-up extraction vents, modern mechanical aids plugged into the folds of the neoclassical pile.

Within, they are indeed lean machines for the job at hand. The conservation studios, with natural light at the upper levels, are open, adaptable floors furnished with big tables on wheels. There are no dropped ceilings or raised floors, which can serve as hiding places for moths and other pests. All services are exposed in true Rogers style, for plug-and-play flexibility.

For the first time, it gives the museum the space to examine its collection in the right conditions, from the 11-metre-long Guavan canoe to the Michelangelo cartoon, along with coffins, totem poles and hoards of coins, all

at once.

"It's a nice change from our Georgian servants' basement," says Pippa Pearce, a conservation officer. "Before, we were on top of each other and looking up at the outside world through bars, but now we're in this wonderful light and airy space. We finally have the world-class facilities to work on our world-class collection."

Captions:

The glass-roofed atrium at WCEC and a freestanding staircase. 'We finally have the world-class facilities to work on our world-class collection,' said conservation officer Pippa Pearce. Below, Lord Rogers

Main photographs: Paul Raftery


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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