Inventory Site Record

British Museum Forecourt (Camden)

Brief Description

The British Museum was built in stages from 1823 onwards, planned as a large quadrangle with an open courtyard extending north from Montagu House. This was the original museum, which opened in 1759 housing the collection Sir Hans Sloane had bequeathed to the nation. The quadrangle was essentially completed in 1852, the South Range built as the principal facade following the demolition of Montagu House in c.1840. The forecourt of the museum has a lawn either side of the main entrance on Great Russell Street. The West Lawn has been used for special exhibitions from time to time including Africa Garden, China Landscape, India Landscape and, in 2010, South Africa Landscape.

Practical Information
Site location:
Great Russell Street; Montague Place
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Institutional Grounds
Open to public?
Opening times:
Daily, 10am-5.30pm and until 8.30pm on Thursday, Friday. Closed 24-26 December and 1 January.
Special conditions:
Admission charge for some special exhibitions
Café, restaurant, shops, toilets.. Paul Hamlyn Library, study rooms
Numerous events, special exhibitions, educational and other activities throughout the year (see museum website)
Public transport:
Tube: Tottenham Court Road (Central, Northern), Holborn (Piccadilly, Central). Bus: 1, 7, 8, 19, 25, 38, 55, 98, 242; 10, 14, 24, 29, 73, 134, 390
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.britishmuseum.org

Full Site Description

The British Museum was built in 1823-52 to designs of Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) although there have been later additions to the buildings. It was planned as a large quadrangle in the then fashionable Greek Revival style, with an open courtyard extending north from Montagu House, which was the original museum housing the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Sloane had bequeathed his large collection of some 71,000 objects to the king, George II, to preserve it for the nation, a gift that was accepted in June 1753. An Act of Parliament was passed to set up the British Museum and it was opened to the public on 15 January 1759, at that time in Montagu House, a C17th house, which the Trustees had purchased in 1755. This grand mansion had been built for Ralph Montagu who lived here with his family; behind the house was a large formal garden laid out in the French style with grass, gravel walks, fountain and ornamental sculpture, much admired at the time.

The gardens had become neglected by the time Montagu House was purchased for the museum and the Trustees then employed their gardener, Mr Bramley, for 'Rolling, Mowing, Watering, Planting, Digging, Pruning the Trees'. By the end of 1755 it was reported that 'The whole garden has been mowed, weeded and cleared of the Anthills; the Gravel Walks and borders restored, the Slopes made less steep and together with the borders planted; the Kitchen Garden trenched; a Tool House built in it; and the Basin repaired.' Now restored, the gardens were opened to visitors on 11 March 1757 and proved so popular that the Trustees issued season tickets for admission, although like the Museum it was free. By the time the museum opened it included other collections, notably the Old Royal Library, which had been donated by George II. New acquisitions and gifts were made, including King George III's Library in 1823, and this led to the need for a larger building.

Robert Smirke's new museum was built in stages, the East Wing of 1823-26 was built to house George IV's library and Angerstein pictures, which later formed the basis of the National Gallery collection. The West Wing of 1831-4 was built to house antiquities, as was the North Wing of 1833-8. The former was redecorated to Smirke's original colour scheme in 1980. The South Range of 1842-7 was built as the principal facade following the demolition of Montagu House in c.1840. The garden of Montagu House was also entirely built over. The Reading Room was built in 1857 in the middle of the Great Court. In the 1880s the natural history collections were transferred to the new Natural History Museum (q.v.) built in South Kensington. The British Museum expanded to the north during the C19th, the last main addition being the King Edward VII Gallery of 1914, facing Montague Place. From the first admission was free and over the decades the Museum's popularity increased, attracting people of all ages and social standing. The main entrance is from Great Russell Street, the gateway, railings and Porters' Lodges of 1849 designed by Sydney Smirke, Sir Robert's brother, who took over as architect in 1845. The large, elaborate, cast-iron double vehicle entrance gates are flanked by single foot gates.

Within the railings the Museum Forecourt consists of two areas with grass and trees either side of the main path to the steps of the Museum. The Forecourt has been used for special exhibitions from time to time, such as the Africa Garden in 2005 when sculptures by contemporary African artists were exhibited. In summer 2008 China Landscape, the first of a series of five planned collaborations with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (q.v.), was created on the West Lawn. Trees, shrubs, climbers and flowering plants were planted either side of a meandering path, and included gingko, bamboo, dawn redwood, weeping willow, Chusan palm, white mulberry, tree peony, wisteria, handkerchief tree and lacquer tree. A Chinese scholar's garden and other elements of traditional garden design were recreated. This was followed in summer 2009 by the India Landscape inspired by the collections of both the Museum and Kew Gardens and which included plants used in food, medicine, construction, weaving and commerce connected with traditional culture of the Indian subcontinent.

Sources consulted:

British Museum website

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ301816 (530086,181664)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
The Trustees of the British Museum
Site management:
The Trustees of the British Museum
Sir Robert Smirke
Listed structures:
LBI: British Museum, King Edward VII Galleries and attached wall and lions. LBII*: Main entrance gateway, railings & porters lodges. LBII: 18 lamp posts in Museum forecourt
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Yes - Central London Area (Clear Zone Region)
Other LA designation:
Public Open Space, Metropolitan Walk

British Museum Forecourt

British Museum Forecourt, View towards East Lawn, June 2009. Photo: S Williams

British Museum Forecourt, West Lawn with India Landscape, June 2009. Photo: S Williams
'Montague House (now the British Museum)...', published 1 January 1813 by Robert Wilkinson. Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre
British Museum, postcard early C20th (private collection)

Click a photo to enlarge.

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