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The past speaks volumes

Designer chic mixes with Egyptian mummies andancient Rome in the British Museummillennium makeover. Sean Coughlan reports.

At the end of last year the British Museum unveiled its millennium make-over with a spectacular new public space created in the middle of this venerable institution. The Great Court, built at a cost of pound;100m is claimed to be the largest covered public space in Europe, and it is certainly going to pack a powerful visual punch for visitors.

Huge sweeping staircases, hi-tech furnishing and neo-classical portico - beneath a futuristic glass canopy - create a cross between Ancient Rome and an upmarket set from Star Trek.

A handful of sculptures at the edges of this piazza-style space reflect the range of exhibits at the museum. How puzzled the creators of the Roman statue of a young man on a horse and a rather weathered Anglo-Saxon cross would be to see their work in this bleached designer-chic environment.

In the centre of the Great Court is the reading room of the former British Library, which can now be used by everyone. This must be one of the best results from the whole re-development programme. This Victorian library has been used as a resource by such original luminaries as George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, WB Yeats and Lenin.

You can take a seat at the old wooden desks and imagine all the late greats sitting in exactly the same place. When this was a members-only library, it was famously eccentric, with all kinds of eternal students, writers, time-wasters, geniuses, poseurs and madmen working away beneath towering walls of books. The walls were scaled by librarians on ladders, looking more like circus performers than stewards taking down a book.

The museum's deputy head of education,Richard Woff, wants to make sure that people make the most of the Paul Hamlyn reference collection, including schoolchildren, who could finish their homework in the most prestigious library in London.

The books include non-fiction for children, an excellent resource if your imagination is captured by the Roman mosaics or the Egyptian mummies.

There is functionality beneath the shiny surface - in this case, literally below the surface of the reading room. There, with the Great Court and the espresso tipplers in the cafe, is a great warren of brand-new resources for education. Opening this term, the Clore Education Centre has classrooms, workshop spaces and an information technology suite, where school visitors can develop ideas inspired by the exhibits in the galleries.

There is also an impressively modern-looking 320-seat auditorium, which can be used for lectures, talks, performances and film shows. For smaller groups there is a 150-seat auditorium. So the museum will now have much better facilities for school groups. The Ford Centre for Young Visitors, a smart set of brick vaulted rooms, will be the place where schools can hang their hats, with enough lockers, seating and eating places to accommodate 1,400 children a day. "It's the first time that there will have been a dedicated space for school visitors - it will provide a point of contact where staff can meet and welcome teachers and pupils when they arrive," says Richard Woff.

"Education is now physically and metaphorically at the centre of the museum," he says.

The British Museum Great Russell Street London WC1V 3DG.Tel: 0207 323 8511. Education department: www.thebritish Free entry. Groups of more than 10, or those with access needs, should pre-book.

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