TOUR THE BRITISH MUSEUM
From a 'cabinet of curiosities' to one of the biggest exhibition spaces in the world, follow the British Museum’s significance as the oldest and first public museum in history
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Josh Duke, Vitor Pinto, Bambi Corro, Fimone Fisher, Riley
18 November 2020
Dedicated to culture, art and human history, the British Museum in London is home to nearly eight million works, collected throughout the era of the British Empire. Its significance lays with the institution being the first public national museum in the world. With its vast display of age-old antiquity, precious artefacts, well-preserved drawings and a wide collection of art, it is no wonder the British Museum is at the top of the country’s most visited attractions.
Whether you are intrigued by deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, controversial Greek sculptures, or other-worldly Egyptian mummies, the British Museum has it all. The museum opened its doors in 1759, which makes it one of the world’s oldest with an ever-growing popularity to this day. With close to six million visitors walking through its gallery rooms each year, the British Museum is best known for its display of the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon sculptures all the way from Athens' Acropolis, the Egyptian mummies, the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial relics and the winged bulls from Khorsabad.
Once Upon a Time…
It all started with a 'cabinet of curiosities' in 1753.
Long before the British Museum obtained its vast collection of Roman, European, Greek, Asian, Islamic and Etruscan artefacts, its galleries were devoted to impressive libraries and the collections of the Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). The London-based doctor and scientist married the widow of a wealthy Jamaican planter and over the course of his lifetime managed to obtain a large collection of curiosities.
Sloane's possessions built up to some 71,000 objects of different kinds including 7,000 manuscripts, around 40,000 printed books, extensive drawings, antiquities from various continents and natural history specimens consisting of 337 volumes of dried plants. Afraid to have his collection broken up after his death, Sloane made a £20,000 deal with King George II and this was how in 1759 the museum was first opened to the public on site of the current building.
Growth and Significance
The British Museum turned into a boundary-breaking establishment. It was the very first of a new kind of national museums that belonged neither to a king nor a church. It was the first museum to freely open its doors o the public with the intend to collect art and artefacts of all kind and origin.
Following the museum’s success, several branch institutions were founded, including the Natural History Museum in 1881. Hosting some of the most treasured books in the British Library, the "foundation collections" of the museum included the Harleian Library, the Cottonian Library (dating back to Elizabethan times) and the "Old Royal Library" (with manuscripts gathered by British monarchs).
Over the 250 years following its opening, parallel to the expanding British colonisation, the museum’s number of cultural art objects and antiquities grew to reach some eight million works turning it into one of the largest collections in existence today. Apart from Sloane's scientific collection, the museum gained antiquarian and literary sections, which turned it into both a library and a National Museum. Some of its most famous objects that stir international controversy to this day include the Rosetta Stone of Egypt and the Elgin Marbles of Greece.
The British Museum Today
Although the British Museum is among the largest in the world, the lack of temporarily exhibition space means that less than 1% of its entire collection (approximately 50,000 items) are in fact showcased on public display. About 2 miles of exhibition space is taken by nearly a hundred galleries open to the public while various tours allow visitors to explore the history behind some of the world’s oldest yet best preserved artefacts and manuscripts.
Today the museum’s original collection of manuscripts, books and natural history adds up to the 150 million objects at the independent British Library. The Natural History Museum hosts additional 70 million works of modern and ancient artefacts representing the culture of nations from all over the world. Meanwhile the British Museum’s collection continues to grow to over 13 million objects. Artefacts of small and medium sizes are stored off-site in Blythe House in West Kensington, while Franks House in East London is used to store various other collections including Palaeolithic and Mesolithic works.
The building of the museum faces Great Russell Street with a Greek Revival façade. Unmistakably recognisable with its 44 columns raising to a height of 14 m (45 ft), the British Museum’s design was based on the architecture of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. In 1852 the main entrance was decorated with 15 allegorical figures by Sir Richard Westmacott, meant to display The Progress of Civilisation.
Digitalising Ancient History
It is well known that the British Museum has the largest online database of objects of any museum in the world. The process of putting its collections online began in 2012 and today the museum has around 2,000,000 individual object entries with some 650,000 illustrated artefacts. The database also includes specialised online journals and research catalogues all free to access. With such a vast historical display at the digital users’ fingertips, it is no longer the museum’s online catalogues are explored by nearly 20 million annual visitors.
Did you know…
In 2000 the Great Court was restored by architect Norman Foster and today the stunning glass-and-steel roof not only fills the British Museum with an abundance of light, but it also gifts the building with its significant décor visitors are known to love. At the centre of the Great Court is the famous Reading Room where trailblazers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf used to research and write some of history’s best valued literary works.
The British Museum Tours
Various tours of the museum’s treasures are organised daily and if you’re unsure of where to start your visit, you can easily book one or check the exhibitions and events in advance. The individual galleries open to visitors via free 30-minute Eye-opener tours, which also cover lunchtime gallery talks. Family and audio guides are also available at the Great Court’s main desk in 10 different languages at the price of £7 per adults and £6 per child.