British Museum Great Court

Crowd of visitors in the Great Court at the British Museum

The Great Court at the British Museum was created by roofing the courtyard around the famous Reading Room. For more than a century the courtyard had been filled with book storage for the British Library, but this became redundant in the late 1990s when the library moved to its new premises at St Pancras.

The total cost of the project was £100 million, of which £30 million was provided by the lottery-funded Millennium Commission. Part of the vision for the project was that the Great Court would be a "new public space for London" and that it would form "a new link in the pedestrian route from the British Library to Covent Garden and the river".

Map showing typical pedestrian routes from British Library via the Great Court to the Thames.

To realise that vision, it was agreed the Great Court—and therefore the north and south entrances to the Museum—would be open for very long hours, from 8am to midnight several days a week. But as opening day approached, the Museum realised that this would incur substantial costs for staffing, lighting and heating, with no real evidence that there would be significant through traffic after hours.

The precise opening hours then became a matter for negotiation between the British Museum and the Millennium Commission. To assist the Museum, I set about estimating the costs and benefits of various opening hours for the Great Court. The general approach was:

  1. Estimate the cost per hour of opening the Great Court and the route through the Museum, using the Museum's own staffing and energy costs and the Great Court's projected energy costs.
  2. Estimate the cost per hour of energy and staffing to open various major galleries.
  3. Using the Museum's data on visitor flows and estimates of north-south pedestian traffic and out-of-hours usage of the Great Court, calculate the number of people who would benefit from (a) late-night opening of the Great Court and north-south-route and (b) keeping major galleries open.
  4. Combine all this data to understand the trade-offs.

As a result I was able to show that the Millennium Commission's preferred opening hours were far longer than optimal, and that if the goal was to maximise public access to the Museum and Great Court as a whole, this would be achieved by giving up the late-night opening of the Great Court and north-south route and instead keeping the main galleries open for somewhat longer hours.

With the help of my report the Museum was able to agree an opening hours compromise with the Millennium Commission which produced a six-figure annual cost saving.