Learn About the British Museum

One of the best ways to see London is to check out the British Museum, which is also one of the country’s most visited landmarks. With a collection of over 8 million objects that span 2 million years of human history, art, and culture, the museum is known as a vital keeper of valuable treasures.

The British Museum, located in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood, is not merely a structure but also a work of art. Before entering the building, glance up and observe the 44-column Greek Revival front facing Great Russell Street, which was modeled after an ancient temple of Athena. It is distinguished by a triangle, known as a pediment, which represents the incredible evolution of humanity. Once inside, take a moment to appreciate the magnificence of the Great Court, the biggest covered square in Europe and the true heart of the Museum.

The History of The British Museum

The first public national museum in the world and is established in 1753 with the goal of preserving “a collection of art and antiquities from ancient and current civilizations.” The museum’s guiding principles are “that the collections be kept in perpetuity in their totality, that they are publicly accessible to everyone who desire to appreciate and learn from them, and that they are curated by full-time professionals.” At the time of its founding, it allowed free admission to any “studious and curious individuals.”

The museum’s history begins with an inheritance of approximately 71,000 items. Sir Hans Sloane, a physician and collector, bequeathed the country his extensive collection of ancient sculptures, coins and medals, books, and natural history specimens.

Sloane’s collections, together with a number of other libraries and collections, served as the basis for not just the British Museum, but also the Natural History Museum and the British Library. 

The British Museum received various contributions after its founding, notably the Thomason Collection and David Garrick’s library of 1,000 printed plays. 

Initially, the primary challenge was to gather them together in an appropriate location. The venue selected by the British government was the city center townhouse Montagu House. As the number of items in the museum grew, more galleries were added to the original building.

The Building

Building

Because there was such a need for space, Sir Robert Smirke started demolishing Montagu House in 1823 to create room for his considerably larger Greek Revival-style structure that is still standing today. To house King George III’s library, the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) was the first wing to be constructed. The colonnaded portico, through which visitors still enter the museum today, was added in 1852 to complete the structure. The statues in the pediment above the entrance were created by Sir Richard Westmacott to depict the Victorians’ idea of the “development of civilization”.

The structure has always included cutting-edge technology, as seen by the towering dome of the Round Reading Room (opened in 1857) and the Foster and Partners-designed Queen Elizabeth II Great Court that surrounds it (opened in 2000). In addition, in 2000, a glass-roofed building was added to the museum’s center. Lord Norman Foster designed the Great Court. It’s a true wonder that surrounds the original Reading Room.

Reading Room

The British Museum Library required a bigger reading room by the early 1850s.The Keeper of Printed Books, Antonio Panizzi (1837-1856), had the idea to create a circle chamber in the Museum’s vacant central courtyard.

The Reading Room is located in the center of the Great Court, in the heart of the Museum. Completed in 1857, it was recognized as one of London’s greatest landmarks and became a globally renowned educational institution.

Great Court

Great Court

The British Museum is home to the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. It is designed by Foster & Partners, is a two-acre glass-roofed expanse including the world-famous Reading Room. It is the biggest covered public area in Europe and is located in the heart of the British Museum.

Departments

Departments

The museum consists of nine departments:

Department of Egypt and Sudan. From 10,000 BCE to the 12th century CE, they are perhaps the most extensive collections outside of their particular nations of origin.

Asia. The Department of Asia’s focus is exceptionally wide; its holdings of approximately 75,000 artifacts span the whole Asian continent (from East, South, Central, and South-East Asia) and date from the Neolithic to the present day. Until recently, this department was focused on collecting Oriental artifacts from metropolitan or semi-urban populations across Asia. Many of those artifacts were acquired by colonial officials and explorers in former British Empire territories, particularly the Indian subcontinent.

Coins and Medals. About a million coins, medals, tokens, and other forms of currency are housed in the British Museum’s numismatic collection, making it one of the best in the world. The coins in the collection reflect both Eastern and Western cultures, and they cover the full history of currency from its inception in the 7th century BC up to the current day. 

Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The British Museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Ethnographic artifacts, showcasing the civilizations of indigenous peoples from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Three main continents rich and varied cultures are represented by more than 350,000 artifacts spanning thousands of years.

Department of Greece and Rome. With over 100,000 artifacts, the British Museum possesses one of the world’s biggest and most complete collections of antiquities from the Classical world. The majority of them date between the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age (about 3200 B.C.) and the foundation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine I (313 A.D.).

Prehistory and Europe. The ancient collections include objects from Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the oldest African artifacts dating back two million years.

Prints and Drawings. This section of the museum has over 50,000 drawings and 2,000,000 prints, and it focuses on graphic art from the Western world from the fourteenth century up to the current day.

Conservation, Documentation, and Science. This department was established in 1924. Ceramics and glass, metals, organic material (including textiles), stone, wall paintings and mosaics, Eastern pictorial art, and Western pictorial art are the six specialized fields of conservation. The department of science creates procedures for dating artifacts, analyzing and identifying the materials used in their formation, and identifying the areas artifacts came from and the techniques utilized in their construction. Additionally, the division publishes its results and discoveries.

Libraries and Archives. All educational levels—casual visitors, students at schools, graduates with degrees, and beyond—are covered by this division. More than 350,000 books, periodicals, and pamphlets covering every aspect of the museum’s collection are housed in the different libraries of the institution. This department is in charge of the general museum archives, which go back to the institution’s founding in 1753.

Must See Treasures of the British Museum

1. The Rosetta Stone (Gallery 4)

In 1822, the hieroglyphs were deciphered, and with them came the history, religion, and civilization of ancient Egypt. Don’t leave the museum without checking out the Rosetta Stone, its most famous exhibit.

2. Parthenon Sculptures (Room 18)

These ancient Greek sculptures graced the Parthenon, a temple on the Athenian Acropolis that formerly housed a gigantic gold and ivory figure of the goddess Athena.

3. Statue of Tara (Room 33)

This lovely nearly-life-sized Tara figure was produced in a single piece of pure bronze and dates from about AD 700-900. Tara is a religious being and one of the spiritual guardians Buddhists can pray to when they are in trouble. This figure originates from Sri Lanka.

4. Bust of Ramesses the Great (Room 4)

Bust of Ramesses the Great

Weighing 7.5 tonnes, it previously sat in Egypt’s Ramesseum, honoring Ramesses II, one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.

5. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Helmet (Room 41)

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Helmet

The numerous artifacts of the Sutton Hoo grave, discovered by archaeologist Basil Brown in 1939, date back to 7th century Britain and are widely thought to have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon monarch. When it was found, the helmet was in 500 pieces because the mound had collapsed and crushed it. It was first fixed up in 1947, and in 1968 it was taken apart and put back together again. That’s when the face mask started to show itself for the first time.

6. Aztec Serpent (Room 27)

A wooden double-headed snake with turquoise mosaics and oyster and conch shell decorations. It is a Mexica (Aztec) art piece that is around 17 inches broad by 8 inches high by two inches thick. It was most likely used as a ceremonial pectoral or breastplate. It was made in the 15th or 16th centuries.

7. The Portland Vase

The most renowned Roman artifact is the Portland Vase, a glass vase from the 1st century that was acquired by the Duchess of Portland in the 18th century.  Josiah Wedgwood based his jasperware vases on the Portland Vase.

Final Thoughts: 

The British Museum in Bloomsbury, one of the world’s oldest and greatest museums, attracts about six million people yearly and is the most popular tourist destination in the United Kingdom. Through the diverse collection, you will witness some of the world’s greatest treasures and get a better understanding of how England perceives the world today.