The British Museum’s hidden basement galleries are to remain closed under its new masterplan for a sweeping redisplay of its collections. The eight underground rooms were quietly shut to visitors more than a decade ago and have been widely forgotten. A museum spokeswoman tells The Art Newspaper that “there are no current plans to open up the basement galleries”.

These spaces housed two collections: Assyrian antiquities from present-day Iraq, and Greek and Roman sculptures. Built in the late 19th century, the galleries were originally double-height rooms. In the 1960s, they were cut in half to create a new floor at the main level of the museum.

In 2006, the basement was closed entirely, largely because of access problems. Without a lift, entry for disabled visitors was restricted. The museum was also concerned about evacuating visitors in an emergency. Keeping the galleries open required security warders, so their closure helped to save costs.

Six of the underground galleries were dedicated to ancient Greece and Rome, including architecture, classical inscriptions, early Ephesus material, Roman sculpture and Roman portraits. Larger Greek and Roman sculptures remain in the basement, where they can be viewed by appointment. Some objects have been moved to the main level or stored elsewhere. Others are included in the museum’s touring exhibition Rome: City and Empire, which is due to open at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra on 21 September.

The British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, and its trustees are now developing a highly ambitious masterplan to reinstall most of the collection, a process that will take years and possibly decades. It is likely to be the museum’s most radical redisplay in more than 150 years.
Plans are still at an early stage, but the underground galleries will remain off-limits to the public and will probably be used for storage and handling of museum objects. Under the masterplan, the museum may decide to move some of the Assyrian reliefs from the basement up to the main floor.