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British Museum

British Museum
British Museum is located in Central London
Location within central London
Established 1753 (1753)
Location Great Russell Street, London, United Kingdom
Collection size approx. 8 million objects[1]

6,701,043 (2014)[2]

Public transit access London Underground: Tottenham Court Road, Holborn, Russell Square, and Goodge Street stations
The centre of the museum was redeveloped in 2001 to become the Great Court, surrounding the original Reading Room.

The British Museum is a [3] and originates from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.[a]

The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of an expanding British colonial footprint and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1881. Some objects in the collection, most notably the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, are the objects of controversy and of calls for restitution to their countries of origin.

Until 1997, when the British Library (previously centred on the Round Reading Room) moved to a new site, the British Museum housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.[4] Since 2002 the director of the museum has been Neil MacGregor.[5] In April 2015, MacGregor announced that he will step down as Director of the British Museum on 15 December 2015.[6]


  • History 1
    • Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum 1.1
    • Foundation (1753) 1.2
    • Cabinet of curiosities (1753–78) 1.3
    • Indolence and energy (1778–1800) 1.4
    • Growth and change (1800–25) 1.5
    • The largest building site in Europe (1825–50) 1.6
    • Collecting from the wider world (1850–75) 1.7
    • Scholarship and legacies (1875–1900) 1.8
    • New century, new building (1900–25) 1.9
    • Disruption and reconstruction (1925–50) 1.10
    • A new public face (1950–75) 1.11
    • The Great Court emerges (1975–2000) 1.12
    • The British Museum today 1.13
  • Governance 2
  • Building 3
  • Departments 4
    • Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan 4.1
    • Department of Greece and Rome 4.2
    • Department of the Middle East 4.3
    • Department of Prints and Drawings 4.4
    • Department of Prehistory and Europe 4.5
    • Department of Asia 4.6
    • Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas 4.7
    • Department of Coins and Medals 4.8
    • Department of Conservation and Scientific Research 4.9
    • Libraries and Archives 4.10
  • British Museum Press 5
  • Controversy 6
    • Disputed items in the collection 6.1
  • Galleries 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum

Although today principally a museum of cultural art objects and

  • Official website
  • 360° panoramas and images from 14 rooms in the British Museum
  • The British Museum from The Survey of London
  • British Museum elevation
  • The British Museum Trust Ltd, Registered Charity no. 1140844 at the Charity Commission

External links

  • Anderson, Robert (2005). The Great Court and the British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Arrowsmith, Rupert Richard. Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant Garde. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 103–164. ISBN 978-0-19-959369-9.
  • Arrowsmith, Rupert Richard. "The Transcultural Roots of Modernism: Imagist Poetry, Japanese Visual Culture, and the Western Museum System", Modernism/modernity Volume 18, Number 1, January 2011, pp. 27–42. ISSN: 1071-6068.
  • Caygill, Marjorie (2006). The British Museum: 250 Years. London: The British Museum Press
  • Caygill, Marjorie (2002). The Story of the British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Cook, B. F. (2005). The Elgin Marbles. London: The British Museum Press
  • Esdaile, Arundell (1946) The British Museum Library: a Short History and Survey. London: Allen & Unwin
  • Jenkins, Ian (2006). Greek Architecture and its Sculpture in The British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Francis, Frank, ed. (1971) Treasures of the British Museum. London: Thames & Hudson (rev. ed., 1975)
  • Moser, Stephanie (2006). Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at The British Museum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
  • Reade, Julian (2004). Assyrian Sculpture. London: The British Museum Press
  • Reeve, John (2003). The British Museum: Visitor's Guide. London: The British Museum Press
  • Wilson, David M. (2002). The British Museum: a history. London: The British Museum Press

Further reading

  1. ^ "Collection size". British Museum. 
  2. ^ Mark Brown, arts correspondent. "The British Museum celebrates 255 years with record visitor numbers". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 January 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c "About us". British Museum. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  4. ^ "Admission and opening times". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  5. ^ "National man for British Museum". BBC News. 29 November 2001. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  6. ^ 8.4.2015
  7. ^ "Creating a Great Museum: Early Collectors and The British Museum". Fathom. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  8. ^ "General history". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  9. ^ Gavin R de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (London, 1953).
  10. ^ Letter to Charles Long (1823), BMCE115/3,10. Scrapbooks and illustrations of the Museum. (Wilson, David, M.) (2002). The British Museum: A History. London: The British Museum Press, pg 346
  11. ^ "The British Museum Images". Bmimages. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  12. ^ a b Dunton, Larkin (1896). The World and Its People. Silver, Burdett. p. 38. 
  13. ^ Wilson, David, M. (2002). The British Museum: A History. London: The British Museum Press, p. 25
  14. ^ The British Museum Opened, History Today
  15. ^ BM, "Portrait plaque of Sir William Hamilton" British Museum
  16. ^ BMCE1/5, 1175 (13 May 1820). Minutes of General Meeting of the Trustees, 1754–63. (Wilson, David, M. (2002). The British Museum: A History, p. 78)
  17. ^ Wondrous Curiosities – Ancient Egypt at the British Museum, pp. 66–72 (Stephanie Moser, 2006, ISBN 0-226-54209-2)
  18. ^ The Story of the British Museum, p. 24 (Marjorie Caygill, 2003, ISBN 0-7141-2772-8)
  19. ^ The British Museum – The Elgin Marbles, p. 85 (B.F.Cook, 2005, ISBN 0-7141-2134-7
  20. ^ The British Museum – Assyrian Sculpture, pp. 6–7 (Julian Reade, 2004, ISBN 0-7141-2141-X)
  21. ^ "King's Library". Bl. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  22. ^ Wilson, David, M. (2002). The British Museum: A History. London: The British Museum Press, p. 79
  23. ^ The Story of the British Museum, p. 25 (Marjorie Caygill, 2003, ISBN 0-7141-2772-8)
  24. ^ Reade, Julian (2004). Assyrian Sculpture. London: The British Museum Press, p. 16
  25. ^  
  26. ^ South from Ephesus – An Escape From The Tyranny of Western Art, pp. 33–34,(Brian Sewell, 2002, ISBN 1-903933-16-1)
  27. ^ "The Electric Light in the British Museum – Excerpt from The Times, 25 November 18 December 1879 1879" (PDF). New York Times. 18 December 1879. Retrieved 12 November 2007. 
  28. ^ Caygill, Marjorie (2006). The British Museum: 250 Years. London: The British Museum Press, p. 5
  29. ^ a b Caygill, Marjorie. "Creating a Great Museum: Early Collectors and The British Museum". Fathom. Retrieved 13 November 2007. 
  30. ^ "British Museum - Collection search: You searched for". British Museum. 
  31. ^ Permanent establishment of the Research Laboratory (now the oldest such establishment in continuous existence) "History". British Museum. 
  32. ^ Cook, B.F. (2005). The Elgin Marbles. London: The British Museum Press, pg 92
  33. ^ Wilson, David, M. (2002). The British Museum: A History. London: The British Museum Press, p. 270
  34. ^ Wilson, David, M. (2002). The British Museum: A History. London: The British Museum Press, p. 327
  35. ^ "Room 25: Africa". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  36. ^ "Search the collection database". Retrieved 15 January 2014. 
  37. ^ Highlights British Museum, online research catalogues British Museum and online journals British Museum
  38. ^ a b "British Museum gets record 6.7m visitors for 2013". BBC News. Retrieved 20 March 2014. 
  39. ^ Smithers, Rebecca. "Sunny weather drew record numbers to UK's outdoor tourist hotspots in 2013". The Guardian. 
  40. ^ Miller, Joe (22 September 2014). "British Museum to be digitally recreated in Minecraft".  
  41. ^ "Directors". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  42. ^ "Museum governance". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  43. ^ "Becoming a Trustee". British Museum. Retrieved 1 March 2014. 
  44. ^ Building the British Museum, Marjorie Caygill & Christopher Date 1999
  45. ^ "Building London". UCL. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  46. ^ Title deed of the 'perimeter properties' of The British Museum, BM Archives CA TD
  47. ^ pp. 65–66, Building the British Museum, Marjorie Caygill & Christopher Date 1999
  48. ^ Norman Foster and the British Museum, Norman Foster, Deyan Sudjic & Spencer de Grey 2001
  49. ^ "British Museum Project". Waagner Biro. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  50. ^
  51. ^ a b c "Cross calls for new debate on stored collections". Museums Association. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 26 June 2013. 
  52. ^ Jennifer Huang and Deborah Kuo (31 January 2007). "British Museum feels privileged to put exhibition in Taiwan". Taiwan Headlines. Government Information Office, Republic of China (Taiwan). Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  53. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (5 July 2007). "British Museum plans £100m complex for blockbusters". The Guardian (London). p. 10. Retrieved 5 July 2007. 
  54. ^ "British Museum unveils new £135 million wing". Design Week. 
  55. ^ "Franks House". Retrieved 15 January 2014. 
  56. ^ "Development since World War II (1945 – )". British Museum. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  57. ^ Reported in the list of Sloane's collection given to his executors in 1753. Reproduced in MacGregor (1994a:29)
  58. ^ "A British Museum Egyptologist's View: The Return of Egyptian Antiquities is Not an Issue". Touregypt. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  59. ^ "Ancient Egypt and Sudan". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  60. ^ Tony Kitto, "The celebrated connoisseur: Charles Townley, 1737–1805" Minerva Magazine May/June 2005, in connection with a British Museum exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of the Townley purchase. Townley marbles Burnley Archived February 5, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  61. ^ "British Museum - Research". 
  62. ^ "Museum With No Frontiers". Discover Islamic Art. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  63. ^ "History of the Collection: Middle East". British Museu. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  64. ^ "Study room page". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  65. ^ a b "Prints and Drawings galleries". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  66. ^ Searches on 8 January 2012 return totals of 700,000, but many are in other departments
  67. ^ Anita Singh (29 November 2011). "City fund manager in £1m Picasso giveaway". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  68. ^ British Museum Highlights
  69. ^ "BM Reindeer". 
  70. ^ "British Museum - Ain Sakhri lovers figurine". British Museum. 
  71. ^ Babs.Guthrie. "Collection page". Untold London. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  72. ^ "Embassy of Japan in the UK". Japan Embassy. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  73. ^ "Department of Asia". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  74. ^ "Department of Asia – Related Highlight Objects". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  75. ^ "Room 33a: Amaravati". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  76. ^ "Africa, Oceania and the Americas". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  77. ^ "Coins and Medals Study Room". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  78. ^ "British Museum - Conservation and Scientific Research". 
  79. ^ See the "Facilities and Services" tab on the home page for each department for details on each library; not all are kept at Bloomsbury. Anthropology Library
  80. ^ "Paul Hamlyn Library". British Museum. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  81. ^ a b "About the BMP". Retrieved 2 March 2014. 
  82. ^ "Research Publications". Retrieved 2 March 2014. 
  83. ^ "Greek and Roman Antiquities". British Museum. 14 June 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  84. ^ a b CBC Arts (26 March 2006). "Arts – British Museum returns aboriginal ashes to Tasmania". Archived from the original on 27 May 2009. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  85. ^ Editor. "Breal's Silver Cup to be displayed at the New Acropolis Museum for one-year period from September 2012". BCRPM. 
  86. ^ Kennedy, Maev (28 March 2002). "British Museum sold precious bronzes". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  87. ^ "News – Getting the Nazi stolen art back". Channel 4. 27 March 2007. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  88. ^ Harding, Luke (10 April 2007). "Tajik president calls for return of treasure from British Museum". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  89. ^ "Egypt calls for return of Rosetta Stone". BBC News. 21 July 2003. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  90. ^ Larmer, Brook. 2010, "Caves of Faith", p. 136-138, National Geographic Magazine, June 2010.
  91. ^ The question of the use of the term 'British' at this period has recently received some attention, e.g. Colley (1992), 85ff. There never has been a serious attempt to change the Museum's name.
  92. ^ Quoted Ashmole (1994), 125
  93. ^ Ashmole (1994), 126


h. ^ The Cairo Museum has 200,000 artefacts, with leading collections reposited at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin (100,000), Musée du Louvre (60,000), Petrie Museum (80,000), The Metropolitan Museum of art (26,000), University of Pennsylvania (42,000), Ashmolean Museum (40,000), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (40,000), Museo Egizio, Turin (32,500 objects).

It was not until the 1980s that the installation, of a lighting scheme removed his greatest criticism of the building.

It is, I suppose, not positively bad, but it could have been infinitely better. It is pretentious, in that it uses the ancient Marbles to decorate itself. This is a long outmoded idea, and the exact opposite of what a sculpture gallery should do. And, although it incorporates them, it is out of scale, and tends to dwarf them with its bogus Doric features, including those columns, supporting almost nothing which would have made an ancient Greek artist architect wince. The source of daylight is too high above the sculptures, a fault that is only concealed by the amount of reflection from the pinkish marble walls. These are too similar in colour to the marbles...These half-dozen elementary errors were pointed out by everyone in the Museum, and by many scholars outside, when the building was projected.[93]

g. ^ Ashmole had never liked the Duveen Gallery:

The old Elgin Gallery was painted a deep terracotta red, which, though in some ways satisfactory, diminished its apparent size, and was apt to produce a depressing effect on the visitor. It was decided to experiment with lighter colours, and the walls of the large room were painted with what was, at its first application, a pure cold white, but which after a year's exposure had unfortunately yellowed. The small Elgin Room was painted with pure white tinted with prussian blue, and the Room of the metopes was painted with pure white tinted with cobalt blue and black; it was necessary, for practical reasons, to colour all the dadoes a darker colour[92]

f. ^ Ashmole, the Keeper of the Greek and Roman Antiquities appreciated the original top-lighting of these galleries and removed the Victorian colour scheme, commenting:

e. ^ Understanding of the foundation of the National Gallery is complicated by the fact that there is no documented history of the institution. At first the National Gallery functioned effectively as part of the British Museum, to which the Trustees transferred most of their most important pictures (ex. portraits). Full control was handed over to the National Gallery in 1868, after the Act of Parliament of 1856 established the Gallery as an independent body.

d. ^ This was perhaps rather unfortunate as the title to the house was complicated by the fact that part of the building had been erected on leasehold property (the Crown lease of which ran out in 1771); perhaps that is why Howard Colvinet al. (1976), 134.

c. ^ The estimated footage of the various libraries as reported to the Trustees has been summarised by Harris (1998), 3,6: Sloane 4,600, Harley 1,700, Cotton 384, Edwards 576, The Royal Library 1,890.

b. ^ By the Act of Parliament it received a name – the British Museum. The origin of the name is not known; the word 'British' had some resonance nationally at this period, so soon after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745; it must be assumed that the Museum was christened in this light.[91]

a. ^ Sculptures and applied art are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum houses earlier art, non-Western art, prints and drawings, and art of a later date is at Tate Modern. The National Gallery, holds the National Collection of Western European Art, with Tate Britain deposited with British Art from 1500.


See also

Forgotten Empire Exhibition (October 2005 – January 2006)


Department of Greece and Rome

Department of the Middle East

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Museum Galleries


Disputed items in the collection

The British Museum continues to assert that it is an appropriate custodian and has an inalienable right to its disputed artefacts under British law.

The British Museum has refused to return these artefacts, stating that the "restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world".[83] The Museum has also argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. Nevertheless, it has returned items such as the Tasmanian Ashes after a 20-year-long battle with Australia.[84]

It is a point of controversy whether museums should be allowed to possess artefacts taken from other countries, and the British Museum is a notable target for criticism. The Greece, Nigeria and Egypt respectively.

A few of the Elgin Marbles (also known as the Parthenon Marbles) from the East Pediment of the Parthenon.


Scholarly titles are published in the Research Publications series, all of which are peer-reviewed. This series was started in 1978 and was originally called Occasional Papers. The series is designed to disseminate research on items in the collection. Between six and eight titles are published each year in this series.[82]

The BMP publishes both popular and scholarly illustrated books to accompany the exhibition programme and explore aspects of the general collection. Profits from their sales goes to support the British Museum.[81]

The British Museum Press (BMP) is the publishing business and a division of the British Museum Company Ltd, a company and a charity (established in 1973) wholly owned by the Trustees of the British Museum.[81]

British Museum Press

This department covers all levels of education, from casual visitors, schools, degree level and beyond. The Museum's various libraries hold in excess of 350,000 books, journals and pamphlets covering all areas of the museum's collection. Also the general Museum archives which date from its foundation in 1753 are overseen by this department; the individual departments have their own separate archives and libraries covering their various areas of responsibility, which can be consulted by the public on application. The Anthropology Library is especially large, with 120,000 volumes.[79] However, the Paul Hamlyn Library, which had become the central reference library of the British Museum and the only library there freely open to the general public, closed permanently in August 2011.[80] The website and online database of the collection also provide increasing amounts of information.

Libraries and Archives

has and continues to develop techniques to date artefacts, analyse and identify the materials used in their manufacture, to identify the place an artefact originated and the techniques used in their creation. The department also publishes its findings and discoveries. [78] This department was founded in 1920.

Department of Conservation and Scientific Research

The British Museum is home to one of the world's finest Treasure Trove. This has enabled the museum to purchase important hoards of gold and silver coins, many of which were buried during periods of crisis or upheaval. There are approximately 9,000 coins, medals and banknotes on display around the British Museum. More than half of these can be found in the Citi Money Gallery (Gallery 68), while the remainder form part of the permanent displays throughout the museum. Items from the full collection can be seen by the general public in the Study Room by appointment.[77]

Room 68 – The refurbished Money Gallery at the museum

Department of Coins and Medals

The Americas collection mainly consists of 19th and 20th century items although the Paracas, Moche, Inca, Maya, Aztec, Taino and other early cultures are well represented. The Kayung totem pole, which was made in the late nineteenth century in the Queen Charlotte Islands, dominates the Great Court and provides a fitting introduction to this very wide ranging collection that stretches from the very north of the North American continent where the Inuit population has lived for centuries, to the tip of South America where indigenous tribes have long thrived in Patagonia. Highlights of the collection include First Nation objects from Alaska and Canada collected by the 5th Earl of Lonsdale and the Marquis of Lorne, the Squier and Davis collection of prehistoric mound relics from North America, a selection of pottery vessels found in cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde, a collection of turquoise Aztec mosaics from Mexico (the largest in Europe), important artefacts from Teotihuacan and Isla de Sacrificios, several rare pre-Columbian manuscripts including the Codex Zouche-Nuttall and Codex Waecker-Gotter, a spectacular series of Mayan lintels from Yaxchilan excavated by the British Mayanist Alfred Maudslay, a very high quality Mayan collection that includes sculptures from Copan, Tikal, Tulum, Pusilha, Naranjo and Nebaj (including the celebrated Fenton Vase), a group of Zemi Figures from Vere, Jamaica, a number of prestigious pre-Columbian gold and votive objects from Colombia, ethnographic objects from across the Amazon region including the Schomburgk collection, two rare Tiwanaku pottery vessels from Lake Titicaca and important items from Tierra del Fuego donated by Commander Phillip Parker King.

Room 27 – Huaxtec art on display in the Mexico Gallery


The British Museum's Oceanic collections originate from the vast area of the Frederick Broome and Arthur Gordon, before Western culture significantly impacted on indigenous cultures. The Wilson cabinet of curiosities from Palau is another example of pre-contact ware. The department has also benefited greatly from the legacy of pioneering anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski and Katherine Routledge. In addition, the Māori collection is the finest outside New Zealand with many intricately carved wooden and jade objects and the Aboriginal art collection is distinguished by its wide range of bark paintings, including two very early bark etchings collected by John Hunter Kerr. A poignant artefact is the wooden shield found near Botany Bay during Cook's first voyage in 1770. A particularly important group of objects was purchased from the London Missionary Society in 1911, that includes the unique statue of A'a from Rurutu Island, the rare idol from the isle of Mangareva and the Cook Islands deity figure. Other highlights include the huge Hawaiian statue of Kū-ka-ili-moku or god of war (one of three extant in the world) and the famous Easter Island statues Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava.


The Sainsbury African Galleries display 600 objects from the greatest permanent collection of African arts and culture in the world. The three permanent galleries provide a substantial exhibition space for the Museum's African collection comprising over 200,000 objects. A curatorial scope that encompasses both archaeological and contemporary material, including both unique masterpieces of artistry and objects of everyday life. A great addition was material amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome, which was donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1954. Highlights of the African collection include objects found at megalithic circles in The Gambia, a dozen exquisite Afro-Portuguese ivories, a series of soapstone figures from the Kissi people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Asante goldwork and regalia from Ghana including the Bowdich collection, the rare Akan Drum from the same region in west Africa, the Benin and Igbo-Ukwu bronze sculptures, the beautiful Bronze Head of Queen Idia, a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler and quartz throne from Ife, a similar terracotta head from Iwinrin Grove near Ife, the Apapa Hoard from Lagos, southern Nigeria, an Ikom monolith from Cross River State, the Torday collection of central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry from the Kuba Kingdom including three royal figures, the unique Luzira Head from Uganda, processional crosses and other ecclesiastical and royal material from Gondar and Magdala, Ethiopia following the British Expedition to Abyssinia, excavated objects from Great Zimbabwe (that includes a unique soapstone, anthropomorphic figure) and satellite towns such as Mutare including a large hoard of Iron Age soapstone figures, a rare divining bowl from the Venda peoples and cave paintings and petroglyphs from South Africa.

Room 25 – African pots on display in the gallery


The British Museum houses one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Ethnographic material from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, representing the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Over 350,000 objects[76] spanning thousands of years tells the history of mankind from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures; the collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing. Many individuals have added to the department's collection over the years but those assembled by Henry Christy, Harry Beasley and William Oldman are outstanding. Objects from this department are mostly on display in several galleries on the ground and lower floors. Gallery 24 displays ethnographic from every continent while adjacent galleries focus on North America and Mexico. A long suite of rooms (Gallery 25) on the lower floor display African art. There are plans in place to develop permanent galleries for showcasing art from Oceania and South America.

Room 24 – The Wellcome Trust Gallery of Living and Dying, with Easter Island statue in the centre

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

  • Earthenware tazza from the Phùng Nguyên culture, northern Vietnam, (2000–1500 BC)
  • Pottery vessels and sherds from the ancient site of Ban Chiang, Thailand, (10th–1st centuries BC)
  • Bronze bell from Klang, Malaysia, (2nd century BC)
  • Group of six Buddhist clay votive plaques found in a cave in Patania, Penang, Malaysia (6th–11th centuries AD)
  • The famous Sambas Treasure of buddhist gold and silver figures from west Borneo, Indonesia, (8th–9th centuries AD)
  • Two stone Buddha heads from the temple at Borobodur in Java, Indonesia, (9th century AD)
  • Sandstone Champa figure of a rampant lion, Vietnam, (11th century AD)
  • Stone figure representing the upper part of an eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara, Cambodia, (12th century AD)
  • Bronze figure of a seated Buddha from Bagan, Burma, (12th–13th centuries AD)
  • Hoard of Southern Song Dynasty ceramic vessels excavated at Pinagbayanan, Taysan Municipality, Philippines, (12th–13th centuries AD)
  • Statue of the Goddess Mamaki from Candi Jago, eastern Java, Indonesia, (13th–14th centuries AD)
  • Inscribed bronze figure of a Buddha from Fang District, part of a large SE Asian collection amassed by the Norwegian explorer Carl Bock, Thailand, (1540 AD)

South-east Asia

South Asia

East Asia

  • The most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent in the world, including the celebrated Buddhist limestone reliefs from Amaravati excavated by Sir Walter Elliot[75]
  • An outstanding collection of Chinese antiquities, paintings, and porcelain, lacquer, bronze, jade, and other applied arts
  • The most comprehensive collection of Japanese pre-20th century art in the Western world, many of which originally belonged to the surgeon William Anderson and diplomat Ernest Mason Satow

Key highlights of the collections include:[74]

The principal gallery devoted to Asian art in the museum is Gallery 33 with its comprehensive display of Chinese, Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asian objects. An adjacent gallery showcases the Amaravati sculptures and monuments. Other galleries on the upper floors are devoted to its Japanese, Korean, painting and calligraphy, and Chinese ceramics collections.

In 2004, the ethnographic collections from Asia were transferred to the department. These reflect the diverse environment of the largest continent in the world and range from India to China, the Middle East to Japan. Much of the ethnographic material comes from objects originally owned by tribal cultures and hunter-gatherers, many of whose way of life has disappeared in the last century. Particularly valuable collections are from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (much assembled by the British naval officer Maurice Portman), Sri Lanka, Northern Thailand, south-west China, the Ainu of Hokaidu in Japan (chief among them the collection of the Scottish zoologist John Anderson), Siberia and the islands of South-East Asia, especially Borneo. The latter benefited from the purchase in 1905 of the Sarawak collection put together by Dr Charles Hose, as well as from other colonial officers such as Edward A Jeffreys. In addition, a unique and valuable group of objects from Java, including shadow puppets and a gamelan musical set, was assembled by Sir Stamford Raffles.

The scope of the Department of Asia is extremely broad; its collections of over 75,000 objects cover the material culture of the whole Asian continent (from East, South, Central and South-East Asia) and from the Neolithic up to the present day. Until recently, this department concentrated on collecting Oriental antiquities from urban or semi-urban societies across the Asian continent. Many of those objects were collected by colonial officers and explorers in former parts of the philanthropist PT Brooke Sewell, which allowed the department to purchase many objects and fill in gaps in the collection.[71][72][73]

Room 95 – The Sir Percival David collection of Chinese ceramics
Room 33 – China section of the gallery
Room 33 – South Asia section of the Joseph E. Hotung Gallery

Department of Asia

The many hoards of treasure include those of Mildenhall, Esquiline, Carthage, First Cyprus, Lampsacus, Water Newton, Hoxne, and Vale of York, (4th–10th centuries AD)

Renaissance to Modern (c. 1500 AD – present)

Mediaeval (c. 1000 AD – c. 1500 AD)

Early Mediaeval (c. 4th century AD – c. 1000 AD)

  • Tombstone of Roman procurator Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus from London, (1st century AD)
  • Ribchester, Guisborough and Witcham helmets once worn by Roman cavalry in Britain, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
  • Elaborate gold bracelets and ring found near Rhayader, central Wales, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
  • Bronze heads of the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Claudius, found in London and Suffolk, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
  • Vindolanda Tablets, important historical documents found near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, (1st–2nd centuries AD)
  • Wall-paintings and sculptures from the Roman Villa at Lullingstone, Kent, south east England,1st–4th centuries AD)
  • Capheaton and Backworth treasures, remnants of two important hoards from northern England, (2nd–3rd centuries AD)
  • Stony Stratford Hoard of copper headdresses, fibulae and silver votive plaques, central England, (3rd century AD)
  • Gold jewellery deposited at the site of Newgrange, Ireland, (4th century AD)
  • Thetford Hoard, late roman jewellery from eastern England, (4th century AD)

Romano-British (43 AD – 410 AD)

Iron Age (c. 600 BC – c. 1st century AD)

Bronze Age (c. 3300 BC – c. 600 BC)

Stone Age (c. 3.4 million years BC – c. 2000 BC)

Key highlights of the collections include:

Objects from the Department of Prehistory and Europe are mostly found on the upper floor of the museum, with a suite of galleries from Gallery 38 to Gallery 51. Most of the collection is stored in its archive facilities, where it is available for research and study.

In addition, the British Museum's collections covering the period AD 300 to 1100 are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, extending from Spain to the Ilbert collections. The department is also responsible for the curation of Romano-British objects – the museum has by far the most extensive such collection in Britain and one of the most representative regional collections in Europe outside Italy. It is particularly famous for the large number of late Roman silver treasures, many of which were found in East Anglia, the most important of which is the Mildenhall Treasure. Many Roman-British objects were purchased from the antiquarian Charles Roach Smith in 1856, which early on formed the nucleus of the collection.

The Department of Prehistory and Europe was established in 1969 and is responsible for collections that cover a vast expanse of time and geography. It includes some of the earliest objects made by humans in east Africa over 2 million years ago, as well as Prehistoric and neolithic objects from other parts of the world; and the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day. Archeological excavation of prehistoric material took off and expanded considerably in the twentieth century and the department now has literally millions of objects from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods throughout the world, as well as from the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron age in Europe. Stone Age material from Africa has been donated by famous archaeologists such as Louis and Mary Leakey, and Gertrude Caton–Thompson. Paleolithic objects from the Sturge, Christy and Lartet collections include some of the earliest works of art from Europe. Many Bronze Age objects from across Europe were added during the nineteenth century, often from large collections built up by excavators and scholars such as Greenwell in Britain, Tobin and Cooke in Ireland, Lukis and de la Grancière in Brittany, Worsaae in Denmark, Siret at El Argar in Spain, and Klemm and Edelmann in Germany. A representative selection of Iron Age artefacts from Hallstatt were acquired as a result of the Evans/Lubbock excavations and from Giubiasco in Ticino through the Swiss National Museum.

Room 39 – Clocks and watches exhibition space
Room 51 – Prehistoric Europe and the Middle East
Room 49 – Roman Britain with the Mildenhall Treasure in the foreground

Department of Prehistory and Europe

There are groups of drawings by Cruikshank, as well as all the great Victorians. There are about a million British prints including more than 20,000 satires and outstanding collections of works by William Blake and Thomas Bewick.. The great eleven volume Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum compiled between 1870 and 1954 is the definitive reference work for the study of British Satirical prints. Over 500,000 objects from the department are now on the online collection database, many with high quality images.[66] A 2011 donation of £1 million enabled the museum to acquire a complete set of Pablo Picasso's Vollard Suite.[67]

Since its foundation in 1808 the prints and drawings collection has grown to international renown as one of the richest and most representative collections in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints.[65] The collection of drawings covers the period from the 14th century to the present, and includes many works of the highest quality by the leading artists of the European schools. The collection of prints covers the tradition of fine printmaking from its beginnings in the 15th century up to the present, with near complete holdings of most of the great names before the 19th century. Key benefactors to the department have been Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, Richard Payne Knight, John Malcolm, Campbell Dodgson, César Mange de Hauke and Tomás Harris.

The Department of Prints and Drawings holds the national collection of Western prints and drawings. It ranks as one of the largest and best print room collections in existence alongside the Albertina in Vienna, the Paris collections and the Hermitage. The holdings are easily accessible to the general public in the Study Room, unlike many such collections.[64] The department also has its own exhibition gallery in Room 90, where the displays and exhibitions change several times a year.[65]

Room 90 – The prints and drawings exhibition gallery

Department of Prints and Drawings


Key highlights of the collections include:

A representative selection from the Department of Middle East, including the most important pieces, are on display in 13 galleries throughout the museum and total some 4,500 objects. A whole suite of rooms on the ground floor display the sculptured reliefs from the Assyrian palaces at Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, while 8 galleries on the upper floor hold smaller material from ancient sites across the Middle East. The remainder form the study collection which ranges in size from beads to large sculptures. They include approximately 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia.[63]

The museum's collection of Islamic art, including archaeological material, numbers about 40,000 objects,[62] one of the largest of its kind in the world. As such, it contains a broad range of pottery, paintings, tiles, metalwork, glass, seals, and inscriptions from across the Islamic world, from Spain in the west to India in the east. It is particularly famous for its collection of Iznik ceramics (the largest in the world), a highlight of which is the mosque lamp from the Dome of the Rock, mediaeval metalwork such as the Vaso Vescovali with its depictions of the Zodiac, a fine selection of astrolabes, and Mughal paintings and precious artwork including a large jade terrapin made for the Emperor Jahangir. Thousands of objects were excavated after the war by professional archaeologists at Iranian sites such as Siraf by David Whitehouse and Alamut Castle by Peter Willey. The collection was augmented in 1983 by the Godman bequest of Iznik, Hispano-Moresque and early Iranian pottery. Artefacts from the Islamic world are on display in Gallery 34 of the museum.

From the modern state of Syria come almost forty funerary busts from Palmyra and a group of stone reliefs from the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf that was purchased in 1920. More material followed from the excavations of Max Mallowan at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak in 1935–1938 and from Woolley at Alalakh in the years just before and after the Second World War. Mallowan returned with his wife Agatha Christie to carry out further digs at Nimrud in the postwar period which secured many important artefacts for the museum. The collection of Palestinian material was strengthened by the work of Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho in the 1950s and the acquisition in 1980 of around 17,000 objects found at Lachish by the Wellcome-Marston expedition of 1932–1938. Archaeological digs are still taking place where permitted in the Middle East, and, depending on the country, the museum continues to receive a share of the finds from sites such as Tell es Sa'idiyeh in Jordan.

Although the collections centre on Mesopotamia, most of the surrounding areas are well represented. The 5th Earl of Aberdeen in 1861. Moreover, the museum has been able to acquire one of the greatest assemblages of Achaemenid silverware in the world. The later Sasanian Empire is also well represented by ornate silver plates and cups, many representing ruling monarchs hunting lions and deer. Phoenician antiquities come from across the region, but the Tharros collection from Sardinia and the large number of Phoenician stelae from Carthage are outstanding. Another often overlooked highlight is Yemeni antiquities, the finest collection outside that country. Furthermore, the museum has a representative collection of Dilmun and Parthian material excavated from various burial mounds at the ancient sites of A'ali and Shakhura in Bahrain.

In the early 20th century excavations were carried out at D. G. Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, the latter assisted by T. E. Lawrence. The Mesopotamian collections were greatly augmented by excavations in southern Iraq after the First World War. From Tell al-Ubaid came the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, including life-sized lions and a panel featuring the lion-headed eagle Indugud found by H. R. Hall in 1919–24 . Woolley went onto to excavate Ur between 1922 and 1934, discovering the 'Royal Cemeteries' of the 3rd millennium BC. Some of the masterpieces include the 'Standard of Ur', the 'Ram in a Thicket', the 'Royal Game of Ur', and two bull-headed lyres. The department also has three diorite statues of the ruler Gudea from the ancient state of Lagash and a series of limestone kudurru or boundary stones from different locations across ancient Mesopotamia.

Layard's work was continued by his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam and in 1852–1854 he went on to discover the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh with many magnificent reliefs, including the famous Royal Lion Hunt scenes. He also discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, a large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance that today number around 130,000 pieces. W. K. Loftus excavated in Nimrud between 1850 and 1855 and found a remarkable hoard of ivories in the Burnt Palace. Between 1878 and 1882 Rassam greatly improved the Museum's holdings with exquisite objects including the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates from Balawat, important objects from Sippar, and a fine collection of Urartian bronzes from Toprakkale.

Room 52 – Ancient Iran with the Cyrus Cylinder, considered to be the world's first charter of human rights, 559–530 BC
Room 6 – Pair of Human Headed Winged Lions and reliefs from Nimrud with the Balawat Gates, c. 860 BC

The first significant addition of Mesopotamian objects was from the collection of Claudius James Rich in 1825. The collection was later dramatically enlarged by the excavations of A. H. Layard at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845 and 1851. At Nimrud, Layard discovered the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, as well as three other palaces and various temples. He later uncovered the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh with 'no less than seventy-one halls'. As a result, a large numbers of Lamassu's, bas-reliefs, stelae, including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, were brought to the British Museum.

With a collection numbering some 330,000 works,[61] the British Museum possesses the world's largest and most important collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. The collections represent the civilisations of the ancient Near East and its adjacent areas. These cover Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia, Syria, the Holy Land and Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean from the prehistoric period and include objects from the beginning of Islam in the 7th century. A collection of immense importance, the holdings of Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian antiquities are among the most comprehensive in the world with entire suites of rooms panelled in alabaster bas-reliefs from Assyrian palaces at Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad. Only the Middle East collections of the Louvre and the Pergamon Museum rival it in the range and quality of artefacts.

Room 9 – Nineveh Palace Reliefs, 701–681 BC

Department of the Middle East

Ancient Rome (1st century BC – 4th century AD)

Ancient Greece (8th century BC – 4th century AD)

  • Some of the artefacts from the Castellani Tomb in Palestrina, central Italy, (8th–6th century BC)
  • Gold jewellery from the Galeassi Tomb, Palestrina, Lazio, (700–650 BC)
  • An exquisite gold brooch adorned with granulated pairs of lions, Vulci, Etruria, (675–650 BC)
  • Various objects including two small seated terracotta statues from the Tomb of the Five Chairs in Cerveteri, (625–600 BC)
  • Contents of the Isis Tomb, Vulci, (570–560 BC)
  • Painted terracotta plaques (the so-called Boccanera Plaques) from a tomb in Cerveteri, (560–550 BC)
  • Silver panels with repoussé reliefs from Castel San Marino, near Perugia, (540–520 BC)
  • Bronze votive statuette of a young man from Pizzirimonte, near Prato, (500–480 BC)
  • Bronze helmet of a general captured at the Battle of Cumae and deposited at Olympia (c. 480 BC)
  • Hoard of votive bronze figures from Lake Falterona, (420–350 BC)
  • Bronze funerary equipment from a tomb near Bolsena, (350–300 BC)
  • Pottery vessels from the François Tomb, Vulci, (340–300 BC)
  • One of a pair of elaborate gold earrings decorated with bosses and a pendant female head, Perugia (300–200 BC)
  • Oscan Tablet, one of the most important inscriptions in the Oscan language, (300–100 BC)
  • Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa from Chiusi, (150–140 BC)

Etruscan (8th century BC – 1st century BC)

  • Over thirty Cycladic figures from islands in the Aegean Sea, many collected by James Theodore Bent, Greece, (3300–2000 BC)
  • Group of copper tools from the island of Naxos known as the Kythnos Hoard, Cyclades, Greece, (2700–2200 BC)
  • Hoard of a silver torc and four bracelets from Antiparos, Cyclades, Greece, (2700–2200 BC)
  • Material from the Palace of Knossos including a huge pottery storage jar, some donated by Sir Arthur Evans, Crete, Greece, (1900–1100 BC)
  • The Minoan gold treasure from Aegina, northern Aegean, Greece, (1850–1550 BC)
  • Minoan objects from the Psychro Cave, including an ornate serpentine libation table, Crete, Greece, (1700–1450 BC)
  • Minoan Bull-leaper from Rethymnon, Crete, Greece, (1600-1450BC)
  • A silver Mycenaean cup from tomb 92 at Enkomi, Cyprus, (1500–1450 BC)
  • Segments of the columns and architraves from the Treasury of Atreus, Peloponnese, Greece, (1350–1250 BC)
  • Nuragic bronze hoard of rings, weapons, tripods and other objects from Santa Maria in Paulis, Sardinia, Italy (1100–900 BC)
  • Group of bronze votive figures that inspired the Swiss sculptor Giacometti, Nuragic civilization, Sardinia, Italy (1000–900 BC)
  • Proto-Etruscan gold fibula with chevron and zigzag designs, central Italy, (825–775 BC)
  • Elgin Amphora, highly decorated pottery vase attributed to the Dipylon Master, Athens, Greece, (8th century BC)
  • Orientalizing gold jewellery and plaques from Kameiros excavated by Alfred Biliotti and Auguste Salzmann, Rhodes, Greece, (8th century BC)
  • Large number of votive offerings found at the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta, Peloponnese, Greece, (c. 700 BC)

Prehistoric Greece and Italy (3300 BC – 8th century BC)

Wider Collection

Xanthos in Asia Minor
  • Lion Tomb, (550–500 BC)
  • Harpy Tomb, (480–470 BC)
  • Nereid Monument, partial reconstruction of a large and elaborate Lykian tomb, (390–380 BC)
  • Tomb of Merehi, (390–350 BC)
  • Tomb of Payava, (375–350 BC)
Knidos in Asia Minor
Temple of Artemis in Ephesus
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • One of the sculptured column bases, (340–320 BC)
  • Part of the Ionic frieze situated above the colonnade, (330–300 BC)
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • Two colossal free-standing figures identified as Maussollos and his wife Artemisia, (c. 350 BC)
  • Part of an impressive horse from the chariot group adorning the summit of the Mausoleum, (c. 350 BC)
  • The Amazonomachy frieze – A long section of relief frieze showing the battle between Greeks and Amazons, (c. 350 BC)
Temple of Bassae
  • Twenty three surviving blocks of the frieze from the interior of the temple are exhibited on an upper level, (420–400 BC)
Temple of Athena Nike
  • Surviving Frieze Slabs, (427–424 BC)
  • A surviving column, (420–415 BC)
  • One of six remaining Caryatids, (415 BC)

Key highlights of the collections include:

Objects from the Department of Greece and Rome are located throughout the museum, although many of the architectural monuments are to be found on the ground floor, with connecting galleries from Gallery 5 to Gallery 23. On the upper floor, there are galleries devoted to smaller material from ancient Italy, Greece, Cyprus and the Roman Empire.

The collections of ancient jewellery and bronzes, Greek vases (many from graves in southern Italy that were once part of Sir William Hamilton's and Chevalier Durand's collections), Roman glass including the famous Cameo glass Portland Vase, Roman mosaics from Carthage and Utica in North Africa that were excavated by Nathan Davis, and silver hoards from Roman Gaul (some of which were bequeathed by the philanthropist and museum trustee Richard Payne Knight), are particularly important. Cypriot antiquities are strong too and have benefited from the purchase of Sir Robert Hamilton Lang's collection as well as the bequest of Emma Turner in 1892, which funded many excavations on the island. Roman sculptures (many of which are copies of Greek originals) are particularly well represented by the Townley collection as well as residual sculptures from the famous Farnese collection.

Beginning from the early Bronze Age, the department also houses one of the widest-ranging collections of Italic and Etruscan antiquities outside Italy, as well as extensive groups of material from Cyprus and non-Greek colonies in Lycia and Caria on Asia Minor. There is some material from the Roman Republic, but the collection's strength is in its comprehensive array of objects from across the Roman Empire, with the exception of Britain (which is the mainstay of the Department of Prehistory and Europe).

The Greek objects originate from across the Ancient Greek world, from the mainland of Greece and the Aegean Islands, to neighbouring lands in Asia Minor and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean and as far as the western lands of Magna Graecia that include Sicily and southern Italy. The Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are represented, and the Greek collection includes important sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, as well as elements of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.

The British Museum has one of the world's largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities from the Classical world, with over 100,000 objects. These mostly range in date from the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age (about 3200 BC) to the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the Edict of Milan under the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 313 AD. Archaeology was in its infancy during the nineteenth century and many pioneering individuals began excavating sites across the Classical world, chief among them for the museum were Charles Newton, John Turtle Wood, Robert Murdoch Smith and Charles Fellows.

Room 21 – Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, mid-4th century BC
Room 18 – Parthenon marbles from the Acropolis of Athens, 447 BC
Room 17 – Reconstruction of the Nereid Monument, c. 390 BC

Department of Greece and Rome

  • Schist head of a young man, Alexandria, (after 30 BC)
  • The Meriotic Hamadab Stela from the Kingdom of Kush found near the ancient site of Meroë in Sudan, 24 BC
  • Lid of the coffin of Soter and Cleopatra from Qurna, Thebes, (early 2nd century AD)
  • Mummy of a youth with portrait of the deceased, Hawara, (100–200 AD)
  • Bronze lamp and patera from the X-group tombs, Qasr Ibrim, (1st–6th centuries AD)
  • Coptic wall painting of the martyrdom of saints, Wadi Sarga, (6th century AD)

Roman Period (30 BC-641 AD)

Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC)

  • Saite Sarcophagus of Satsobek, the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt in the reign of Psammetichus I, (664–610 BC)
  • Bronze figure of Isis and Horus, North Saqqara, Egypt, (600 BC)
  • Sarcophagus of Hapmen, Cairo, 26th Dynasty or later, (600–300 BC)
  • Kneeling statue of Wahibre, from near Lake Mariout, (530 BC)
  • Sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre, (525 BC)
  • Obelisks and sarcophagus of Pharaoh Nectanebo II, (360–343 BC)

Late Period (664–332 BC)

  • Statue of the Nile god Hapy, Karnak, (c.900 BC)
  • Mummy case and coffin of Nesperennub, Thebes, (c.800 BC)
  • Shabaka Stone from Memphis, Egypt 25th Dynasty, (around 700 BC)
  • Statue of Amun in the form of a ram protecting King Taharqa, (683 BC)
  • Inner and outer coffins of the priest Hor, Deir el-Bahari, Thebes, 25th Dynasty, (about 680 BC)
  • Granite statue of the Sphinx of Taharqo, (680 BC)

Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BC)

New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC)

  • Inner and outer coffin of Sebekhetepi, Beni Hasan, (about 2125–1795 BC)
  • Limestone stela of Heqaib, Abydos, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, (1990–1750 BC)
  • Quartzite statue of Ankhrekhu, 12th Dynasty, (1985–1795 BC)
  • Granite statue of Senwosret III, (1850 BC)
  • Block statue and stela of Sahathor,12th Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat II, (about 1922–1878 BC)
  • Limestone statue and stelae from the offering chapel of Inyotef, Abydos, 12th Dynasty, (about 1920 BC)

Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC)

  • Artefacts from the tomb of King Khasekhemwy from the 2nd dynasty, (2690 BC)
  • Granite statue of Ankhwa, the shipbuilder, Saqqara, Egypt, 3rd Dynasty, (around 2650 BC)
  • Several of the original casing stones from the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, (c. 2570 BC)
  • Statue of Nenkheftka from Deshasha, 4th Dynasty, (2500 BC)
  • Limestone false door of Ptahshepses, (2380 BC)
  • Wooden tomb statue of Tjeti, Fifth to Sixth Dynasty, (about 2345–2181 BC)

Old Kingdom (2690–2181 BC)

  • Mummy of Ginger from Gebelein, (c. 3400 BC)
  • Flint knife with an ivory handle (known as the Pit-Rivers Knife), Sheikh Hamada, Egypt, (c. 3100 BC)
  • The Battlefield Palette and Hunters Palette, two cosmetic palettes with complex decorative schemes, (c. 3100 BC)
  • Ivory statuette of a king, from the early temple at Abydos, Egypt, (c. 3000 BC)
  • King Den's sandal label from Abydos, mid-1st Dynasty, (c. 2985 BC)
  • Stela of King Peribsen, Abydos, (c. 2720–2710 BC)

Predynastic and Early Dynastic period (c. 6000 BC – c. 2690 BC)

Key highlights of the collections include:

The seven permanent Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, which include its largest exhibition space (Room 4, for monumental sculpture), can display only 4% of its Egyptian holdings. The second-floor galleries have a selection of the museum's collection of 140 mummies and coffins, the largest outside Cairo. A high proportion of the collection comes from tombs or contexts associated with the cult of the dead, and it is these pieces, in particular the mummies, that remain among the most eagerly sought after exhibits by visitors to the museum.

In autumn 2001 the eight million objects forming the Museum's permanent collection were further expanded by the addition of six million objects from the Wendorf Collection of Egyptian and Sudanese Prehistory.[59] These were donated by Professor Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University in Texas, and comprise the entire collection of artefacts and environmental remains from his excavations at Prehistoric sites in the Sahara Desert between 1963 and 1997. Other fieldwork collections have recently come from Dietrich and Rosemarie Klemm (University of Munich) and William Adams (University of Kentucky).

Active support by the museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in important acquisitions throughout the 20th century until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of policies allowing finds to be exported, although divisions still continue in Sudan. The British Museum conducted its own excavations in Egypt where it received divisions of finds, including Asyut (1907), Mostagedda and Matmar (1920s), Ashmunein (1980s) and sites in Sudan such as Soba, Kawa and the Northern Dongola Reach (1990s). The size of the Egyptian collections now stand at over 110,000 objects.[58]

Room 63 – Mummies on display in the Egyptian Death and Afterlife Galleries
Room 4 – Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon', 1250 BC

By 1866 the collection consisted of some 10,000 objects. Antiquities from excavations started to come to the museum in the latter part of the 19th century as a result of the work of the Flinders Petrie's Egypt Research Account and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, as well as the Oxford University Expedition to Kawa and Faras in Sudan.

Egyptian antiquities have formed part of the British Museum collection ever since its foundation in 1753 after receiving 160 Egyptian objects[57] from Sir Hans Sloane. After the defeat of the French forces under Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities collected were confiscated by the British army and presented to the British Museum in 1803. These works, which included the famed Rosetta Stone, were the first important group of large sculptures to be acquired by the Museum. Thereafter, the UK appointed Henry Salt as consul in Egypt who amassed a huge collection of antiquities, some of which were assembled and transported with great ingenuity by the famous Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni. Most of the antiquities Salt collected were purchased by the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre.

The British Museum houses the world's largest[h] and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities (with over 100,000[56] pieces) outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A collection of immense importance for its range and quality, it includes objects of all periods from virtually every site of importance in Egypt and the Sudan. Together, they illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley (including Nubia), from the Predynastic Neolithic period (c. 10,000 BC) through to the Coptic (Christian) times (12th century AD), a time-span over 11,000 years.

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan


Blythe House in West Kensington is used by the Museum for off-site storage of small and medium-sized artefacts, and Franks House in East London is used for storage and work on the "Early Prehistory" – Palaeolithic and Mesolithic – and some other collections.[55]

Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest museums in the world, covering an area of over 92,000 m2 (990,000 sq. ft).[3][50] In addition to 21,600 m2 (232,000 sq. ft)[51] of on-site storage space, and 9,400 m2 (101,000 sq. ft)[51] of external storage space. Altogether the British Museum showcases on public display less than 1%[51] of its entire collection, approximately 50,000 items.[52] There are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, representing 2 miles (3.2 km) of exhibition space, although the less popular ones have restricted opening times. However, the lack of a large temporary exhibition space has led to the £135 million World Conservation and Exhibition Centre to provide one and to concentrate all the Museum's conservation facilities into one Conservation Centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. It was granted planning permission in December 2009 and was completed in time for the Viking exhibition in March 2014.[53][54]

External view of the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre at the museum, 2015

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is a covered square at the centre of the British Museum designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners.[48] The Great Court opened in December 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe. The roof is a glass and steel construction, built by an Austrian steelwork company,[49] with 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library, its functions now moved to St Pancras. The Reading Room is open to any member of the public who wishes to read there.

The Duveen Gallery, sited to the west of the Egyptian, Greek & Assyrian sculpture galleries, was designed to house the Elgin Marbles by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938, it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict for 22 years, before reopening in 1962. Other areas damaged during World War II bombing included: in September 1940 two unexploded bombs hit the Edward VII galleries, the King's Library received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, incendiaries fell on the dome of the Round Reading Room but did little damage; on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941 several incendiaries fell on the south west corner of the Museum, destroying the book stack and 150,000 books in the courtyard and the galleries around the top of the Great Staircase – this damage was not fully repaired until the early 1960s.[47]

The Reading Room and Great Court roof, 2005
Proposed British Museum Extension, 1906

In 1895, Parliament gave the Museum Trustees a loan of £200,000 to purchase from the Duke of Bedford all 69 houses which backed onto the Museum building in the five surrounding streets – Great Russell Street, Montague Street, Montague Place, Bedford Square and Bloomsbury Street.[46] The Trustees planned to demolish these houses and to build around the West, North and East sides of the Museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the Museum stands. The architect Sir Queen Mary in 1914. They now house the Museum's collections of Prints and Drawings and Oriental Antiquities. There was not enough money to put up more new buildings, and so the houses in the other streets are nearly all still standing.

The next major addition was the White Wing 1882–1884 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.

In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the Museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854–1857; at 140 feet (43 m) in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.

The Enlightenment Gallery at museum, which formerly held the King's Library, 2007

The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823–1828, followed by the North Wing in 1833–1838, which originally housed among other galleries a reading room, now the Wellcome Gallery. Work was also progressing on the northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826–1831, with Montagu House demolished in 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing with its great colonnade, initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847, when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public.[44] The Museum is faced with Portland stone, but the perimeter walls and other parts of the building were built using Haytor granite from Dartmoor in South Devon, transported via the unique Haytor Granite Tramway.[45]

The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 45 ft (14 m) high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance is decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, installed in 1852.

The main entrance to the museum, with Greek temple style portico, 2007


A board of 25 trustees (with the Director as their accounting officer for the purposes of reporting to Government) is responsible for the general management and control of the Museum, in accordance with the British Museum Act 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act 1992.[42] Prior to the 1963 Act, it was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The board was formed on the Museum's inception to hold its collections in trust for the nation without actually owning them themselves, and now fulfil a mainly advisory role. Trustee appointments are governed by the regulatory framework set out in the code of practice on public appointments issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.[43]

The British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the Director. The British Museum was run from its inception by a 'Principal Librarian' (when the book collections were still part of the Museum), a role that was renamed 'Director and Principal Librarian' in 1898, and 'Director' in 1973 (on the separation of the British Library).[41]


In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year.[38] Popular exhibitions including "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum" and "Ice Age Art" are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors.[39] Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.[40]

As part of its very large website, the museum has the largest online database of objects in the collection of any museum in the world, with 2,000,000 individual object entries, 650,000 of them illustrated, online at the start of 2012.[36] There is also a "Highlights" database with longer entries on over 4,000 objects, and several specialised online research catalogues and online journals (all free to access).[37] In 2013 the museum's website received 19.5 millions visits, an increase of 47% from the previous year.[38]

With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum empty, the process of demolition for Lord Foster's glass-roofed Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family – with the donation valued at £25 million.[35]

The Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the Museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre.

Today the museum no longer houses collections of natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The Museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.

The BP Lecture Theatre at the museum, part of the Clore Centre for Education, 2013

The British Museum today

The Museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The Museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.[34]

The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – which opened in 2000. The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind at 6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries in the museum in 2000.

The Great Court emerges (1975–2000)

By the 1970s the Museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the Museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints & drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 114 miles of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.

In 1953 the Museum celebrated its Board of Trustees changed and the Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries.[33] In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.[g]

The re-opened Duveen Gallery, 1980

A new public face (1950–75)

New mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In 1931 the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades.[f] However, in August 1939, due to the imminence of war and the likelihood of air-raids the Parthenon Sculptures along with Museum's most valued collections were dispersed to secure basements, country house, Aldwych tube station, the National Library of Wales and a quarry. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing.[32] The Museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2600 BC Mesopotamian treasure from Ur, discovered during Leonard Woolley's 1922–34 excavations. Gold, silver and garnet grave goods from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946). The immediate post-war years were taken up with the return of the collections from protection and the restoration of the museum after the Blitz. Work also began on restoring the damaged Duveen Gallery.

Disruption and reconstruction (1925–50)

All the while, the collections kept growing. National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919 some objects were found to have deteriorated. A temporary conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence.[31] In 1923 the British Museum welcomed over one million visitors.

By the last years of the 19th century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the Museum building was no longer big enough for them. In 1895 the trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the Museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the West, North and East sides of the Museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.

Sir Leonard Woolley holding the famous excavated Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922
Opening of The North Wing, King Edward VII's Galleries, 1914

New century, new building (1900–25)

These terms are still observed, and the collection occupies room 45, although it will move to new quarters in 2015.

placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it.[29]

In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the Waddesdon Bequest, the glittering contents from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of objets d'art et de vertu which included exquisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica, among them the Holy Thorn Reliquary, probably created in the 1390s in Paris for John, Duke of Berry. The collection was in the tradition of a schatzkammer or treasure house such as those formed by the Renaissance princes of Europe.[29] Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be

The William Burges collection of armoury was bequeathed to the museum in 1881. In 1882 the Museum was involved in the establishment of the independent Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator, A.W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, over 30,000 bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the Oxus Treasure.[28]

The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, in 1887. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.[27]

Display case of Renaissance metalware from the Waddesdon Bequest, 2014

Scholarship and legacies (1875–1900)

Until the mid-19th century, the Museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the Museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, branching out into Asia and diversifying its holdings of ethnography. A real coup for the museum was the purchase in 1867, over French objections, of the Duke of Blacas's wide-ranging and valuable collection of antiquities. Overseas excavations continued and John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, another Wonder of the Ancient World.[26]

Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian National Library of Paris.[12] The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.[25]

The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for Assyrian sculptures and Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in South Kensington, which would later become the British Museum (Natural History).

Collecting from the wider world (1850–75)

Sir Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), a Trustee of The British Museum from 1830, assembled a fine library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the Museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.

In 1840 the Museum became involved in its first overseas excavations, Charles Fellows's expedition to Xanthos, in Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lycia, among them the Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857 Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the Museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard and others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets, which helped to make the Museum a focus for Assyrian studies.[24]

The Museum became a construction site as Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose. The King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London. Although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.

The Grenville Library, 1875

The largest building site in Europe (1825–50)

In 1802 a Buildings Committee was set up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawings.[21] The neoclassical architect, Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the Museum "... for the reception of the Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..."[22] and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished and work on the King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the National Gallery, London in 1824,[e] the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural history collections.[23]

In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid and Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the Rosetta Stone – key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs.[17] Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British consul general in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture.[18] Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman Sculpture, in 1805. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to the UK. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter.[19] The collections were supplemented by the Bassae frieze from Phigaleia, Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities from the widow of Claudius James Rich.[20]

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus Room, 1920s
Left to Right: Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke's west wing under construction, July 1828
The Elgin Room, 1937

Growth and change (1800–25)

The museum’s first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the Museum, dated 31 January 1784 refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the Royal Society in London.

From 1778 a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books, engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the Museum's reputation; but Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.[16]

Indolence and energy (1778–1800)

With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired for £8,400 its first significant antiquities in Sir William Hamilton's "first" collection of Greek vases.[15]

The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.[13][d]

The Rosetta Stone on display in the British Museum in 1874

Cabinet of curiosities (1753–78)

The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum – national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, while including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests.[11] The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both national museum and library.[12]

Montagu House, c. 1715

On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.[b] The British Museum Act 1753 also added two other libraries to the Sloane collection, namely the Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to Elizabethan times and the Harleian library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the Royal Library, assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library[10] including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving copy of Beowulf.[c]

Foundation (1753)

At that time, Sloane's collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds[8] including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.[9]


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