The British Museum is the central historical and archaeological museum of Great Britain and one of the largest museums in the world. It was founded in 1753 with the permission of the British Parliament. Its exposition occupies 94 galleries, the total length of which is 4 km. It is based on the collections of three famous people – the Earl Robert Harley, physician Hans Sloane and antiquarian Robert Cotton. From the latter the museum received a huge collection of books, which marked the beginning of the British Library.
The British Museum is a colonial history of the British Empire. On a tour of, say, the Cairo Museum, they will tell you what relics they are missing because they are on display in London. What to say about the Greeks, who are still hatching projects to restore the former greatness of the Athenian acropolis.
The museum was first housed in the aristocratic mansion of Montague House in a London neighborhood called Bloomsbury. In 1759 it was opened to the public and the collection was gradually enlarged with new exhibits. Purchases included antique vases by William Hamilton, Greville’s collection of minerals, the Townley marbles, and priceless masterpieces from the Parthenon in Athens bought from Lord Elgin. But not all exhibits made it into the museum that way – some made it into the country “by the back door. For example, Egypt and Greece still demand the return of some illegally exported ancient monuments.
The development of the British Museum was especially turbulent in the 19th century, during which time it became necessary to divide the collection into sections. Between 1823 and 1847, the Montague House was demolished and in its place a modern museum building designed by Robert Smurk in the Classical style was erected. On the first floor, right in the center is the once open courtyard, which received a lattice glass dome in our century. Now the museum is recognized by this very “roof”: there are many massive buildings with columns in the world, and the lightweight dome above the powerful stone walls has become another of London’s calling cards. The construction work was completed in 2000 by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
At the beginning of the 20th century the museum increased the number of works of art from the Middle East thanks to the results of archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia.
Six cats are officially on the staff of the British Museum as rat-catchers.
The British Museum has regular themed tours beginning in the Paul Hemlin Library. Every Sunday there are meetings of the Children’s Club “Young Friends of the British Museum”, whose members have free access to additional exhibitions and places rarely visited by tourists. Nights at the Museum have been very popular recently: Four times a year children stay at the museum all night, listening to interesting stories and playing games. Each night has a specific theme devoted to a particular world culture, for example, “Japanese Night” or “Egyptian Night. By the way, the Egyptian collection occupies the largest gallery with a length of 92 meters and several smaller halls.
One of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world is considered to be in the British Museum, including the sculpture of Pharaoh Ramses II, the granite head of Thutmes III, statues of gods and stone sarcophagi, as well as valuable copies of the Book of the Dead, decorated with drawings, miniatures and headpieces.
Since the museum opened in 1759, several key departments have branched off. Thus, in the mid-19th century, the Mineralogical, Zoological, Botanical and Geological Departments laid the foundations for another museum – the Natural History Museum, one of the most visited in modern London. And the invaluable library of the British Museum (ancient manuscripts and first printed books) was joined with several other collections. Thus in 1973 the British Library was born, the collections of which are divided into several blocks at different addresses.
Exhibits at the British Museum
Although the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman parts of the exhibition are the most popular, the museum presents a unique cross-section of culture from different parts of the world: India and China, Africa, Oceania, South America. This is also the history of Britain itself – from the Roman period to the Middle Ages and beyond. Of equal interest is the numismatic collection (coins) from all over the world, and there is a separate collection of clocks. Paintings are exhibited, maybe not so widely, but impressive: Renaissance engravings (Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, Dürer), works by Rembrandt and English artists. Let’s take a closer look at the most important collections.
The British Museum’s collection of Egyptian artifacts is considered one of the largest in the world. The period from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 7th century A.D. is especially well represented. Among the exhibits – a sculpture of pharaoh Ramses II, a granite head of Tutmes III, sculptures of gods and stone sarcophagi. The Egyptian section also has about 800 papyri with literary works, myths, religious hymns, records of historical events and other documents. In addition, the museum collection contains the most valuable copies of the “Book of the Dead” decorated with drawings, miniatures and headpieces.
The Greco-Roman collection occupies 12 rooms. It includes Phigalion Marbles (works of art from the Temple of Apollo in Phygaly), Elgin Marbles (exported from Greece by Lord Elgin), Lycian sculptures, remains of the famous Temple of Diana in Ephesus and luxury items from the times of Roman emperors. In 1872 the Castellani Collection of antique stones was acquired, making this the largest section of the museum of its kind.
The Department of Antiquities of Western Asia at the British Museum contains collections of cylindrical seals by W. Hamilton and C. Townley, collections of researchers of Persian and Mesopotamian monuments by R. Kerr Porter and C. J. Rich. A number of exhibits featuring the famous Assyrian reliefs came from the excavations of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, and the department also displays antiquities from the Eastern Mediterranean and Hittite monuments.
The Ancient Greek and Roman Art Department has a magnificent collection of ancient sculpture (including several dozen plates and 12 figures from the pediments of the ancient Parthenon, taken out to England in the 19th century by the British ambassador Thomas Bruce – believed to have been illegally), Bronze Age objects from the Aegean (3,000-2,000 BC) and numerous works of Roman art from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Oriental department presents collections of sculptures, ceramics, engravings and paintings of the Far East, South and South-East Asia. Indian statues of Buddha made of bronze, ancient Chinese ritual vessels, bronze items, hieroglyphic writing monuments of the 2d millennium BC and many other treasures of the ancient East are collected here.
The Department of Prehistoric Antiquities and Monuments of Roman Britain collects monuments of material culture of the people beginning with the Celtic tribes, as well as monuments of medieval church art: details of temple decoration, items of utensils, jewelry.
The Medieval and Modern Monuments Department exhibits many religious items, silverware, medieval weapons and knight’s armor, church utensils, collections of ceramics and glass from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the world’s largest collection of clocks.
The Medieval and Modern Monuments Department houses collections of works of decorative and applied art, beginning with early Christianity and extending through the 19th century. There are many religious items, silverware (including crockery, jewelry, horse harness), medieval weapons and knight’s armor, church utensils, collections of ceramics and glass from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the world’s largest collection of clocks.
Don’t miss out on the other, less extensive sections of the British Museum:
Coin and Medal Department, represented by a collection of numismatics from the first coins of the 7th century B.C., precious metal coins to modern examples, plus a collection of medals from the earliest (Byzantine) times to those devoted to major British historical events. The coins and medals in the collection exceed 200,000 pieces.
The collection of engravings and drawings, the size and artistic value of which is on a par with that of the Louvre: paintings by Michelangelo, Dürer, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Raphael, van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and many others are collected here.
Ethnography Department with a collection of household and culture of tribes and peoples of Africa, Australia, Asia, Oceania and America, beginning with the time of discovery by Captain Cook, Columbus and other famous explorers.
The British Museum is also a national library, the holdings of which include about 7 million volumes of printed materials, 200 thousand manuscripts in European languages, 500 thousand geographic maps and about a million copies of sheet music. The scientific library contains 110,000 volumes (11 million items) of patents and a collection of about 20,000 scientific and technical journals. The library of the British Museum contains six reading rooms with 670 seats.
How to get there
The address is WC1B 3DG, London, Great Russell Street. You can get there by tube (Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Holborn stations), by one of the many buses or by cab. The tube is 2.40 GBP with a smartcard and around 4.90 GBP for cash, while the bus is 1.50 GBP with a smartcard depending on the time of day and 5 GBP for cash. By cab from 5.60 GBP per mile.
Opening times: 10am-5.30pm daily, Thursdays and Fridays some departments are open until 8.30pm.
Entry: free. Website: www.britishmuseum.org.
Prices on the page are as of November 2018.
- Monday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Tuesday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Wednesday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Thursday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Friday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Saturday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
- Sunday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM