British Museum

Photo by flickr user craigtmackenzie

The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. The British Museum collection includes artefacts from across the world. They represent the people and places of the past two million years. Important artefacts include: the rosetta stone and the Parthenon sculptures.

The eighteenth century: origins of the British Museum

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.

The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.

The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759 . It was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’.

With the exception of two World Wars, the Museum has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of 5,000 per year to today's 6 million.

Visitors at Montagu House

The nineteenth century: expansion and discovery

In the early part of the nineteenth century there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), theTownley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816).

In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) prompted the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867).

By 1857, both the quadrangular building and the round Reading Roomhad been constructed.

To make more room for the increasing collections held by the Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the Natural History Museum.

The Museum was involved in much excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script). In the same way the Rosetta Stone had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script (a symbol-based script).

A key figure during this period was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826–97). Appointed to the Museum in 1851, he was the first person to be responsible for British and medieval material.

Franks expanded the collection in new directions, collecting not only British and medieval antiquities but also prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and objects.

Visitor numbers increased greatly during the nineteenth century. The Museum attracted crowds of all ages and social classes, particularly on public holidays.

Alongside their academic work, curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures, improving the displays and writing popular guides to the collections.

The twentieth century: providing a public service

The twentieth century saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide to the Museum was published in 1903 and the first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911.

By the 1970s, there was an active programme of gallery refurbishments and an education service and publishing company had been established. Additional public facilities were provided in a series of building works. These included the Duveen Gallery, built to house the Parthenon Sculptures (1939/62).

In 1973 the library became part of a new organisation, the British Library. This organisation remained at the Museum until 1997, when the books left Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, built in the space vacated by the library, reflects the most recent public expansion at the Museum. At two acres, it is the largest covered public space in Europe. In the centre is the restored Reading Room, while around and beneath it new galleries and an education centre were built.

The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the restoration of the King's Library, the Museum's oldest room and the launch of a new permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.

The twenty-first century: the Museum's recent history

During the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Museum has continued to expand its public facilities with the opening of four new permanent galleries in 2008/9:

The Museum is now looking forward to its next major building project, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, which will include a new temporary exhibition space.

In 2009, the Museum was awarded the Carbon Trust Standard for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

Recommended Hotels in London

Visiting the British Museum, London, UK - Review by Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent,

The first view of the British Museum prepares you for the sheer scope and audacity that you will find in the museum itself. The exterior of the museum, constructed in Greek Revival fashion with its looming columns and sculptures adorning the top of the building, is truly beautiful to view. When you enter the museum itself, the true nature of the museum is revealed. Although the museum is somewhat ironically titled the “British Museum,” it actually attempts to encompass much of human civilization. There is art and history from all over the world in this collection, from the periods of Ancient Egypt and Rome, to more modern artifacts from the 19th and 20th century that hail from Asia. There is so much to do and see in this museum that one could spend days in here and not soak in all the information there is to gather. However, if you only have a few hours to spend here on your visit, then the museum's fantastic exhibits from Ancient Egypt and the Classical World are what you have to check out.

Enter the museum and turn left when you reach the center of the ground floor and you will probably see a mass of people huddled around a large stone. This is the Rosetta Stone, one of the museum's most famous artifacts. First discovered in 1799, the stone has been on display in the British Museum since 1802. To the left and right of the Stone you will see some of the museum's collection from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The ground floor mostly features large sculptures of famous Egyptian kings and Pharaohs, parts of Egyptian architecture, hallways of hieroglyphs from the Assyrian Empire, and large coffins and statues used in the burial process. Some of the highlights from this floor from the Ancient Middle East include the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, the human headed winged bulls sculptures from Khorsabad, the red granite sarcophagi with paneled exterior surfaces, and the full-scale reconstruction of the Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III. The gates stand about 20 feet high and are made up of 13 bronze bands which depict scenes of war and sacrifice from the military campaigns of Shalmaneser III. I would almost call this section of the museum full of hidden gems because compared to the Egyptian gallery right on the other side, this gallery is less frequented and it is easier to get up close for pictures and a better look at the objects.

On the right side of the Rosetta Stone is the museum's stunning collection of sculptures and other objects from Ancient Egypt. Some of the busts and statues that must be seen are the colossal bust of Ramesses II in room 4 (hard to miss!), the statue of Amenhotep III, the three black granite statues of pharaoh Sesotris III (perfect for a photo-op with two other friends) and of course the famous Gayer-Anderson Cat. Although the cat is named after the man who donated it to the museum, the cat itself is actually a representation of the cat goddess Bastet, who was believed to have been worshiped since at least the Second Dynasty. It is easy to get lost in this exhibit, as there is so much to see and the scope of it all is so amazing, but make sure to take some time and actually read some of the information the museum provided as there is a lot to be learned here. This section of the museum also features many coffins from the era that are interesting to view to see the full size and scale in which the mummies were buried in. Although if you want to see some mummies you will have to venture up to the upper floors...

The galleries on the second floor contain the museum's vast collection of mummies, coffins and other burial objects. For those interested in the preservation of bodies and mummification, there is a lot to be learned so I suggest reading all that you can. In addition, I recommend the video showing the discovery of the lost tomb-chapel of Nebamun in the Michael Cohen Gallery. Other objects that must be seen include the Sphinx of Taharqo (meant to represent the immense power of the Egyptian and Kushite pharoah Taharqo), the Royal Shabti-figures from Nuri (cute little mini-mummies!), and the gallery of Room 63, which is all about the Egyptian funeral process and archeology.

The other exhibit you have to spend some time exploring in the British Museum is the vast collection of history the museum houses from Ancient Rome and Greece. Some quick highlights are the famous Parthenon galleries, the reconstruction of the Nereid Monument, some ancient statues from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and of course the large collection of famous marble sculptures, some of which include the “Crouching Venus” and the “Spinario (Boy With Thorn). For those interested in architecture, the Parthenon Galleries feature a wealth of information that is even fascinating for someone with little knowledge on the subject. Also worth checking out is the museum's galleries on Roman life on the upper floors, where you can learn all about every aspect of Roman life and check out a large collection of artifacts from the era.

Overall, this is one of the best museums in London and definitely one worth paying multiple visits to. The incredible amount of history that spans the course of human civilization present in this museum is wonderful to take in, and this write-up truly doesn't do the museum justice. However, if you only have time for one visit, then the Museum's exhibits on Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Classical World will most likely be the best use of your time.

-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent

Exhibitions & Tickets
Shop online

Opening information

open daily from 10:00 to 17:30, open until 20:30 thursdays and fridays

Permanent collections

Top artworks

Comments and reviews

Nobody has written any comments or reviews yet. Why not be the first to have your say?

Write a comment or review

Contact information

Exhibitions & Tickets
Online shop
Shop online
Great Russell St
United Kingdom
View map
+44 (0) 7323 8299

Other museums nearby

Get the App!