Located in the Bloomsbury area of London, the British Museum is the location of a national collection of science and art treasures. It first began in 1753 when Parliament purchased the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (the Cabinet of Curiosities) and a collection from Sir Robert Cotton along with Sir Robert Harley’s Library. First opened to the public in 1759 in Montague House, it was later moved to its present location, being built in stages from 1823. The famous domed Reading Room was built in 1857 and is now part of the glassed-in Great Court.
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The British Museum’s mandate is “to illuminate the histories of cultures for the benefit of present and future generations”. Thus, the number and subject of the exhibits and galleries is vast. Ranging from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and back to pre-historic times, they highlight more than just Britain. A visit to the Museum is a visit through the centuries of mankind and what he has left behind of himself.
The British collections trace the history of Britain and cover prehistoric times, Roman Britain, medieval and later Britain, and Graphic Arts. One of the highlights of the pre-historic era is the preserved body of Lindow Man, dated the mid-1st century AD. The Stone Age collections include works of art and jewellery dating from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. Roman Britain is typified by early Christian objects and collections of Roman coins. The history of the Roman Empire and society in Europe is included in such famous objects as the Portland vase, made of cameo-glass and dating from BC 1-AD 1.
4th to 20th century European art and archaeology collections illustrate cultures of the time and include Anglo-Saxon antiquities and medieval pottery. Items from the famous Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial are of particular interest. Sutton Hoo, located in East Suffolk, contained 11 barrows and the remains of a Saxon ship complete with gold and silver treasures.
British prints, drawings, and watercolours of the 16th century to the present are amassed in a large collection and include works by Constable and Turner. There are more than 3,000,000 prints and drawings dating from the 15th century kept in storage. A large reference library is a bonus. A coin collection includes a silver penny of Offa, King of Mercia. The Museum has more than 7000 items in its clock, watch, and scientific instrument collection.
European collections from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Early Celtic civilizations are represented. Some of those of note are the BC 750-450 finds from the cemetery at Hallstatt, Austria and BC 400 flagons from Lorraine in France. Gold, jewels, glass, and porcelain all document the wealth of civilizations.
Greek collections begin at the Bronze Age. Included are sculptures from the mausoleum at Halikarnassos. Possibly the most well known Greek sculptures are the Elgin collection, named after the 7th earl of Elgin who brought them from the Parthenon in Athens. They include pediments, metopes, and friezes.
The Museum can boast of the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world outside of the Cairo museum. They range from the pre-dynastic period to the Christian period and include a famous collection of mummies and coffins, jewelry, weapons, furniture, and tools. The Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most famous of all the Egyptian artefacts. It is a basalt slab with identical texts in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, thus unlocking the key to Egyptian hieroglyphic translation.
African collections encompass sculpture, textiles, graphic arts, and money. Near Eastern collections cover Mesopotamia, the Phoenician world, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central Asia and are some of the most inclusive collections in the world.
Aboriginal art, tools, and weapons are part of the section on Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. Perhaps the most famous object is the great statue, Hoa Hakananai’a, from Easter Island.
The Department of Oriental Antiquities curates Asian material reaching back 9000 years. Sculpture from India, Chinese porcelain, bronze, and jade, and Islamic pottery (one of the world’s best collections) and tiles are just a small part of the vast number of items on display. 16th century Vietnamese trade ceramics, salvaged from the seabed, are one of the department’s recent acquisitions. Japanese swords, armour, metalwork, and art reflect their culture.
Today the British Museum contains one of the most comprehensive collections of art and artifacts in the world.
Museum Opening Hours: Sat-Wed 10am-5:30pm, Thur-Fri 10am-8:30pm
Great Court Opening Hours: Mon 9am-6pm, Tues-Wed 9am-9pm, Thur-Sat 9-11pm, Sun 9am-9pm.
Restaurant, Café, and Shops open various hours.
For specific times check the website at The British Museum
Tel. 020 7323 8000
Admission: Free; charge for special exhibitions
The main entrance is on Great Russell St, with an alternate entrance on Montague Place.
Underground stations: Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Goodge St
Bus routes: Tottenham Court Road, northbound, and Gower Street, southbound: 10, 24, 29, 73, 134; Southampton Row: 68, 91, 188; New Oxford Street: 7, 8, 19, 22b, 25, 38, 55, 98
Photos courtesy British Museum public domain.