The role of museums has evolved since Ptolemy the Saviour opened the first one in 280BC in Egypt, the Mouseion (Seat of the Muses) at Alexandria. However, one aspect of museums has remained constant: it tells the story of humanity, of its struggles and achievements. In doing so, museums become the guardians of the cultural soul and history of nations. No other museum exemplifies this function better than British Museum.
British Museum, considered as one of the greatest museums in the world, draws in over six million visitors annually and well over 43 million virtual visitors. In addition, not only is British Museum the most visited museum in the country, it is also the most visited cultural attraction in the United Kingdom.
British Museum, front perspective. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The 18th century heralded the arrival of two contrasting socio-political influences on the masses - the Industrial Revolution and Age of Enlightenment. Coupled that with the wondrous tales of the British Empire’s expansion throughout the globe as well as an increasingly educated populace, the thirst for knowledge of the known world and history grew massively.
As luck (or ill-fortune?) would have it, globetrotting Irish physician and amateur collector Sir Hans Sloane passed away in 1753. In his will, he strangely, and brazenly, offered his entire collection of over 71,000 artefacts to King George II in return for a paltry sum of £20,000 as compensation for his two daughters. However, the Royal coffer was running a little low at the time, so the King passed the offer to the Parliament. It was received enthusiastically by the Parliament, which already had in its possession the highly regarded collection of manuscripts (the Cottonian library) belonging to the late Sir Robert Bruce Cotton.
Five months after Sir Sloane’s death, on 7 June 1753, to be precise, lawmakers passed an Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum. Augmented by the Harleian Collection of manuscripts belonging to Sir Robert Harley, the 1st Earl of Oxford, as well as a sizable addition of artefacts obtained from the colonial conquests of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, the British Museum was opened to the public in 1759 at the newly renovated Montagu House in Great Russell Street. The cost of renovation was funded entirely by a public lottery (interestingly, the winning ticket number, 46885, was never claimed).
With the exception of temporary closures during World War I and World War II, the museum has remained open almost continuously since.
British Museum is home to one of the largest collection of exhibits in the world, with over eight million artefacts. From Stone Age tools to sculptures from Parthenon of Ancient Greece and 5,000 years old clay figurines from Bab edh-Dhra to priceless gems, the exhibits here chart the history of humanity from prehistoric era to the modern age.
Some of the most famous exhibits at the museum include:
• The Rosetta Stone, Room 4, Ground Floor: The key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
• The Sutton Hoo helmet, Room 41, Upper Floor: A 7th century Anglo-Saxon headgear belonging to King Rædwald of East Anglia
• Artefacts from Mesopotamia, Room 55 and 56, Upper Floor: Comprising of Mesopotamian artefacts, such as The Standard of Ur and votive statues, dating from between 3,500 and 8,000 years ago
• Egyptian Mummies, Rooms 62 and 63, Upper Floor: An Egyptian death and afterlife exhibit, containing coffins, portraits and mummies
• Aztec Double-Headed Serpent, Room 27, Ground Floor: A symbol of the serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, used during religious ceremonies in ancient Maya city states.
• Only 1% of the museum’s over eight million artefacts are displayed to the public
• Like all major western museums, British Museum houses artefacts plundered during colonial conquests. Many countries, such as Egypt, Greece, Nigeria and more recently, China, have demanded the return of various exhibits in the museum. However, the museum contends that it has the right to the items in its role as a repository of human knowledge. In addition, it argues that the British Museum Act of 1963 prohibits any item from being taken away once it has been entered into the museum’s collection.
• British Museum, in partnership with Google, has a large online collection which is available for virtual reality tours.
British Museum is easily accessible using all forms of personal and public transport. However, the most convenient way to get to the museum is by rail. The Tottenham, Russel Square and Holborn underground stations are all just a five-minute walk away from the museum.
The museum is opened from 10.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. daily, except on 1 January and Good Friday, and between 24 and 26 December. Admission is free.
The Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum