The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture, containing one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of artefacts and antiquities in the world.
It contains seven million objects dating from pre-history to the modern day, and is a public body (sponsored by the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport) which, like all British national museums, charges no fee for admission.
It is housed within a grand neoclassical building designed by Sir Robert Smirk in the 19th century and features modern additions such as the stunning Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, the largest covered square in Europe which opened in 2000.
Since 2002 its director has been Neil MacGregor, art historian and former Director of the National Gallery in London, and the museum employs over 1000 staff members.
It admits six million visitors a year, and engages in an active program of educational services with both schools and scholars around the world.
History and foundation
The British Museum was founded on the extensive collection of the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). He bequeathed more than 71,000 objects collected throughout his lifetime to King George II as a gift to the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs and on 7 June 1753 the British Museum was established by an Act of Parliament.
The Sloane collection was soon joined by the library of Sir Robert Cotton and the Harleian library of the Earls of Oxford, and in 1757 King George donated the Old Royal Library of the monarchs of England.
The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759 and was housed in Montagu House, a 17th century mansion on the site of today's building in Bloomsbury. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’.
The expansion of the British Empire brought treasures from around the world during the early years of the 19th century, and antiquities from the ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilisations were acquired. In 1802 King George III presented the museum with the Rosetta Stone, an Egyptian artefact that provided the key to translating hieroglyphs which had been captured after British forces defeated the French in Egypt in 1801.
Many Greek and Roman sculptures followed, including the famous marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ (after they were donated to the museum by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin).
The museum also began to be directly involved in overseas excavations, and was instrumental in the discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets, which pushed the Museum to the forefront of Assyrian studies.
By 1857 Sir Robert Smirk’s quadrangular building and the round Reading Room had been constructed to house the ever-expanding collections, and in 1887 the natural history exhibits were moved to a separate building in Kensington which would later become the Natural History Museum.
By the end of the century expansion was needed to contain the ever-growing amount of objects, and the 69 houses surrounding the museum were purchased and demolished to allow a further expansion.
The twentieth century also saw a great expansion in public services, with the first summary guide to the Museum published in 1903 and the first guide lecturer appointed in 1911.
In 1938 the Duveen Gallery was constructed to house the Parthenon sculptures, funded by the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, but was heavily damaged by bombing during the Second World War.
In 1962 it was rebuilt and the sculptures returned, and in 1963 the Natural History Museum became a separate body through an act of Parliament.
In 1998 the collection of books and manuscripts was finally moved to a new building, forming the new independent British Library in St Pancras, and the vacant space was used to create the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which opened in 2000.
Departments and collections
Africa, Oceania and the Americas
This department curates a collection of around 350,000 objects representing the cultures of the indigenous peoples of four continents. The exhibits span two million years of history and include the famous Benin Bronzes, a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin.
Ancient Egypt and Sudan
The department is home to the second largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world (after the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo). The collection spans 11,000 years of cultural history from the Neolithic period (around 10,000 BC) until the twelfth century AD and is one of the most important collections of its kind, consisting of 110,000 objects.
This department covers the material and visual cultures of Asia, including artefacts from Japan, Korea, China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, South Asia and South-East Asia. It features objects dating from 4000 B.C to the present day, and contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent along with the largest collection of Japanese pre-20th century art in the Western world.
Coins and Medals
The department is home to one of the world's finest numismatic collections, comprising about one million objects. From this collection, 9,000 coins, medals and banknotes are on display throughout the museum, and are complimented by the most extensive numismatic library in the country.
Conservation and Scientific Research
This department works in tandem with others to conserve and investigate the museum’s various collections. Founded in 1920, it is one of the largest and oldest conservation facilities in the world and has a number of specialist areas which aid in the study, repair and stabilisation of many ancient artefacts.
Greece and Rome
This department has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of antiquities from the Classical world, with over 100,000 objects dating from around 3,2000 B.C to the 4th century A.D. It features elements of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos) along with Greek, Roman, Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean artefacts.
The department covers the ancient and contemporary civilisations and cultures of the Middle East from the Neolithic period until the present day. It contains approximately 330,000 objects, including the largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq, and some of the most important Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian antiquities such as archaeological material and art.
Portable Antiquities and Treasure
The department co-ordinates the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a voluntary initiative to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. It is also responsible for administering the Treasure Act of 1996 on behalf of the UK Government.
Prehistory and Europe
The department is responsible for collections that cover the majority of human history, from the earliest human tools in Africa and Asia two million years ago to the art and archaeology of Europe including the history of Britain under Roman occupation.
It contains many treasures discovered by amateur archaeologists through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and also contains the national collection of clocks and watches.
Prints and Drawings
The department is home to the national collection of Western prints and drawings, one of the top three collections of its kind in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day, along with important collections of printed ephemera such as trade and visiting cards.
The most famous of the museum’s exhibits is the Rosetta Stone, and ancient Egyptian tablet featuring a text written in 3 separate languages that allowed scientists to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time. It was found in 1799 by French soldiers digging a fort in the Nile delta, acquired by George III in the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801 and exhibited by the British Museum since 1802.
The Elgin Marbles are a series of ancient Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, dating back to the 5th century B.C. They were purchased from the Ottoman rulers of Greece by the 7th Earl of Elgin Thomas Bruce (British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803), who removed them over a period of 12 years and sold them to the British Museum in 1816 (declining higher offers from other notable sources including Napoleon Bonaparte ).