Blog > History Of The British Museum in London

February 26, 2013

The British Museum is one of the places that every visitor to London should see and has been an important part of the history of London.  It is located on Great Russell Street and is a short trip from Safestay Hostel and can be reached by bus in less than a half an hour. 

You may also take the London Underground.  You can walk for 11 minutes to Kennington and then take the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road.  From there it is a 5 minute walk.  Total travel time is again less than a half an hour.

It is free to the public and is open from 10:00 am. to 17:30 (5:30 pm.) daily with extended hours on Friday (20:30).  Audio guides are available in a number of languages. One should always check the website of the British Museum for upcoming special exhibits.

There is a cost associated with some of these displays because the items are on loan.  They often need to be booked in advance but are well worth the cost.

The British Museum houses a permanent collection of some 8 million artifacts and can boast one of the most comprehensive accumulation of historical objects in the world.

The British Museum was established in 1753 and was primarily based on the personal collections of the famous scientist and physician Sir Hans Sloane. The collections become available to the public in 1759 on the site of the current complex.  At the time they would be housed in the 17th century Montagu House. The offer to use the site of Buckingham Palace had been earlier rejected by the Museum Trustees. The site had been deemed unsuitable because of location and cost.

Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects along with 40,000 books to King George II upon his death in 1753.  It was held in trust for the nation for the princely sum of 20,000 pounds paid to the Sloane Estate. This prevented a breakup in the collections.

Within the groups of artifacts were items from the Americas, the Near and Far East, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  There were even prints and drawings from famous artists including Albrecht Durer.

The museum expanded alongside the growing British Empire. Many of the artifacts in the permanent collection are a result of the acquisition of colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It began and has remained open and free to the public at large.

Several branch institutions also resulted as the collection grew over the years.  These are the British Museum of Natural History established in 1887 and as of 1997 a new national British Library which was moved to a new site.  These are also both easily accessible from Safestay Hostel.

Over the years over famous bequests would be left to the museum.  This would include an impressive collection of Greek vases acquired from Sir William Hamilton in 1772.  Artifacts from Captain James Cook in 1778 and Clayton Morduant Cracherode in 1800 finally forced an expansion of the facilities in 1802.

The present neo-classical building would be mostly constructed from 1825 to 1850 although it would not be fully open to the public until 1857. The buildings themselves are a marvel to behold. Further expansion would continue right into the 20th century with the purchase of adjacent property. The present exhibit space now stands at 990,000 square feet and that does not include the huge areas devoted to storage.

There are nearly 100 galleries open to the public representing 3.2 km or 2 miles of exhibition space.  Even with this impressive length less than 1% of the entire collection is on permanent display.  One  can now observe about 50,000 items at any given time. 

British involvement in Egypt against the French would bring the arrival of new artifacts to the British Museum including the famous Rosetta Stone which ended up to being the key to the modern deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Colossal Bust of Ramesses II would arrive in 1818 allowing the creation of  the Egyptian Monumental Sculpture exhibit. This collection would grow over time.

Many classical sculptures would follow including the famous Roman Sculptures acquired from Charles Towneley in 1805.

 Many Greek sculptures would be added as well the most famous being the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon today known as the Elgin Marbles. Thomas Bruce the 7th Earl of Elgin was the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. During his tenure there he arranged for the removal of these famous sculptures from Athens (then under control of the Ottomans) to Britain.  In 1816 these masterpieces were acquired by the British government and given to the museum.

The famous Bassae Frieze and Temple from Phigaleia Geece would arrive in 1815.

The purchase of items in 1825  from the widow of Claudius James Rich  of Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts set the foundations for these famous exhibits.

Starting in 1840 the British Museum itself would become involved in overseas excavations. Charles Fellows expedition to Xanthos in Asia Minor led to the finding of the Nereid and Payava monuments from the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lydia.

In 1857 Charles Newton would rediscover the international famous Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. Originally built as a tomb in the 4th century B.C.E. the sculptures are part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Another notable museum expedition headed by John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century B.C.E. Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.  It was another site of one the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Excavations in Assyria (northern Iraq) would lead to the rediscovery of Nimrod and Nineveh.  This would eventually help with the discovery of the Great Library of Ashurbanipal.  The cuneiform tablets found would help the museum focus on Assyrian studies.  Among the most famous tablets are the tale of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is another story of creation similar to the Biblical account of Noah but written centuries before.

Beginning in the 1850's with the appointment of the curator Augustus Wollaston Franks the British Museum began to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, Asian artifacts and more diversified holdings of ethnography.

In 1898 the spectacular Waddesdon Bequest would arrive.  This bequest from the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild consists of almost 300 pieces of art including examples of plate enamel, jewelery, carvings, glass and maiolica dating from as early as the 14th century.  Including among them is the famous Holy Thorn Reliquary from Paris probably created in the 1390's. It was commissioned for John the Duke of Berry. Today it can seen in its entirety in room 45.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw museum expeditions into Central Africa and Central Asia. This greatly increased the holdings of the British Museum in artifacts from these areas of the world.

A number of  expeditions from Leonard Woolley (1922-34) led to the discovery of the spectacular museum additions of Mesopotamia treasure from the fabled city of Ur.

Other artifacts would arrive from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939 and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk in 1946.

With the departure of the British Library in 1998 to St. Pancras, the vacant space left at the British Museum was redeveloped into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. It has become the largest covered square in Europe and opened in 2000. 

The conservation, study and collection of artifacts from around the world continues to this day.  It makes the British Museum one of the most important museums from around the world.