Established in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759, the British Museum is one of London’s top attractions that allure more than 6 million visitors every year. It is the largest museum in Great Britain and one of the largest in the world, with its breathtaking collection of about eight million objects, illustrating and documenting more than two million years of human history and culture. The museum is the first national public museum in the world and is absolutely free of charge for all those who wish to marvel at its wonders.
History and Facts
The donation of 71,000 objects from the personal collection of the physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane to King George II marks the foundation of the British Museum. He wanted the large collection of printed books, manuscripts, antiquities and natural specimens preserved after his death so he handed it down to the king in exchange for the sum of £20, 000 to be given to his heirs. The king gave his formal agreement to the Act of Parliament which set up the British Museum. Later, the Cotton and Harley manuscripts were added to the Sloane collection and that meant the British Museum became both National Museum and library.
The museum’s first home sat at the seventeenth-century mansion Montague House in Bloomsbury. However, before long the building became too small to store and feature the ever-expanding collection of the museum (it had received a number of gifts, predominantly books and manuscripts). The first addition, the Townley Gallery for classical sculpture, did not last long and was removed to make place for the Smirke Building.
Designed by Sir Robert Smirke in Greek revival style, it was originally meant to house the personal library of King George III and after a while its south wing replaced the old Montague House. Then, a decision was made to move the natural history collections to a new building to make more room and that building became the Natural History Museum. Another new wing – the Parthenon Galleries for Parthenon sculptures – was opened later. The most recent public expansion is reflected by the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – a glass roof indoor courtyard with the museum’s widely known restored Reading Room placed in the center. The museum also opens many permanent new galleries as well as temporary exhibition spaces.
Other notable attractions in London close by are:
- Big Ben
- Hyde Park
- London Eye
- Tower of London
- Tower Bridge
- Westminster Abbey
- St Paul’s Cathedral
- Buckingham Palace
- National Gallery
Displays and Collections
One of the museum’s most captivating and renowned attractions is the Elgin Marbles – a collection of marble sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Athens. The collection was purchased by the House of Commons and handed over to the museum and it is an object of controversy – both Greece and the UNESCO claiming it for restitution. Another highlight is the extensive Egyptian collection, including statues, sarcophagi, mummies and most importantly the famous Rosetta Stone, used by Jean-François Champollion to decipher hieroglyphic writing. The stone is claimed by Egypt.
Other collections of interest include the Assyrian one, displaying relief carvings from the palaces of the Assyrian kings. One could easily spend an entire day going round the different departments in the museum which include Sudan; Asia; the Middle East; Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and many more.