In 1753, it was lottery money that funded the establishment of the British Museum. Set up specifically for the purpose, the lottery paid for the purchase of Montagu House, built in 1675, and standing on the site of the present-day Museum.
The new institution put on public display the collection of recently-deceased antiquarian, ethnographer and natural historian Sir Hans Sloane, plus several collections of books and manuscripts for which the government of the day needed a long term home.
Formally opened in 1759, the British Museum was soon bursting at the seams. In 1821 the popular architect Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a substantial extension to the north, covering the original gardens of Montagu House. He had hardly begun work, though, when King George IV bequeathed the contents of his father's library to the Museum.
Increased demand for space led Smirke to put forward plans for a quadrangular building, three sides of which would be built around Montagu House.
The old structure would then be demolished to allow construction of the final, southern building. At the centre would be a public open space, a 0.8ha garden, which gave easy access to all parts of the Museum.
But it took the best part of three decades to complete Smirke's plans, by which time space provided in the original proposals was already inadequate. The most rapidly growing collection was that of the library, and by 1846 Smirke's courtyard garden was doomed.
Innovative aesthetically and technologically, a new round reading room and an outer ring of book stacks with cast iron frames and wrought iron ties almost filled the courtyard. A few years after it was completed the Museum's south portico was demolished, and what open space was left became strictly utilitarian.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries a roll call of great literary, political and scientific names helped the round reading room attain iconic status. But the building itself and other space occupied by the library severely disrupted movement patterns around the Museum proper. As pressure on space at the Museum mounted - forcing curators to disperse more and more items, including the natural history collection, to new museums and galleries - the idea of moving the book collection to a new home began to take hold.
A milestone was passed in March 1978, when James Callaghan's Labour government announced its intention to fund a new British Library at St Pancras. Two decades of delay and uncertainty followed. The painfully slow and protracted construction of the new British Library and the transfer of the book collection were not to be completed until Christmas1998. Long before then, however, the Museum trustees had begun to consider what to do with the 40% of total floor area that would be liberated once the Library was gone and book stacks around the reading room demolished.
The reading room itself was to remain.
One early key decision was that the cleared area around the reading room, now dubbed the Great Court, would be public space. An important target was to complete any major works by 2003, the Museum's 250th anniversary. In 1993 a design competition was launched, and in July 1994 a plan by architect Foster & Partners with engineer Buro Happold was declared the winner (see main story).
Total cost was estimated at close to £100M. Providentially, the setting up of the National Lottery in 1994 gave hope to the trustees and eventually provided £30M. Another £15.75M came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, split between the Great Court project and restoration of other parts of the Museum. Over half the cost was eventually met by private donors.