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The British Museum provides an opportunity to view world historical treasures that should not be missed on any visit to London. There are a number of free exhibitions and displays along with regular events. The museum is dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence.
Two Million years of Human History and Culture
A museum of the world, for the world. Discover over two million years of human history and culture. The British Museum displays collections from all continents including world-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies. Some objects in the collection are the objects of controversy and of calls for restitution to their countries of origin.
The Museum is home to objects from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and the ancient world.
History of the British Museum
The British Museum was founded in 1753. It was the first national public museum in the world. From the very beginning, it granted free admission to all ‘studious and curious persons’. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5,000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today.
The Eighteenth Century
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
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.
The Nineteenth Century
In the early part of the nineteenth century, there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), the Townley 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).
The Formation of the Natural History Museum
The museum became limited for space due to the increasing collections held. To overcome this, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s which led to the formation of the Natural History Museum.
The British 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.
The Twentieth Century
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 Largest Covered Public Space in Europe
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 British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the restoration of the King’s Library, the Museum’s oldest room.
The Twenty-First Century
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.
Located in the Bloomsbury area of London, The British Museum is dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection, made up of 8 million works is amongst the largest and most comprehensive in existence. The collection documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.
The Museum is largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. Established in 1753 the museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. The museum has expanded over the following two and a half centuries, largely as a result of an expanding British colonial footprint. This has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1881.
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The British Library
In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum. Following this, The British Museum continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The British Museum charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom.
Discover the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Established in 1969, the Department of Prehistory and Europe houses some of the earliest objects made by humans in east Africa over 2 million years ago. The collections in this part of the museum cover a vast expanse of time and geography. The Department of Asia houses a broad collection of over 75,000 objects.
One of the worlds largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities from the Classical world can be found in the Department of Greece and Rome. The Prints and Drawings section of the museum ranks as one of the largest and best print room collections in existence. The Department of the Middle East houses a collection numbering some 330,000 works.
Over 350,000 objects spanning thousands of years tells the history of mankind from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
Admission Prices and Offers
It is free to enter The British Museum, additional charges may apply for Special Exhibitions.
Travelling to The British Museum
The British Museum is located in the Bloomsbury area of Central London. There are a variety of ways to get to the museum but Public Transport is recommended.
Travelling by Train or Tube
The nearest train stations to The British Museum are Tottenham Court Road (500m), Holborn (500m), Russell Square (800m) and Goodge Street.
Search for your train tickets using Train Genius.
Travelling by Coach
There are a large number of bus services which stop in the vicinity of The British Museum. Visit National Holidays if you want to travel by coach to London.
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The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DGDaily 10.00am – 5.30pm, The Museum is open late until 8.30pm on Fridays.
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