|Established||7 June 1753|
|Location||Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, England, United Kingdom|
|Collection size||approx. 8 million objects|
|Visitors||4,097,253 (2022) (up 209 per cent from 2021)|
|Public transit access||Goodge Street; Holborn; Tottenham Court Road; Russell Square;|
|Area||807,000 sq ft (75,000 m2) in|
The British Museum is a public museum dedicated to human history, art and culture located in the Bloomsbury area of London. Its permanent collection of eight million works is the largest in the world. It documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.[a] The British Museum was the first public national museum to cover all fields of knowledge.
In 2022 the museum received 4,097,253 visitors, an increase of 209 per cent from 2021. It ranked third in the list of most-visited art museums in the world.
The museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the Anglo-Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. It first opened to the public in 1759, in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. The museum's expansion over the following 250 years was largely a result of British colonisation and resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, or independent spin-offs, the first being the Natural History Museum in 1881. The right to ownership of some of its most well-known acquisitions, notably the Greek Elgin Marbles and the Egyptian Rosetta Stone, is subject to long-term disputes and repatriation claims.
In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all national museums in the UK it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.
Although today principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the Anglo-Irish physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), a London-based doctor and scientist from Ulster. During the course of his lifetime, and particularly after he married the widow of a wealthy Jamaican planter, Sloane gathered a large collection of curiosities, and not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for a sum of £20,000.
At that time, Sloane's collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.
On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his Royal Assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.[b] The British Museum Act 1753 also added two other libraries to the Sloane collection, namely the Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dating back to Elizabethan times, and the Harleian Library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the "Old Royal Library", now the Royal manuscripts, assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf.[c]
The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum – national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, while including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests. The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element, and meant that the British Museum now became both National Museum and library.
The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The trustees rejected Buckingham House, which was later converted into the present day Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.[d]
With the acquisition of Montagu House, the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759. At this time, the largest parts of collection were the library, which took up the majority of the rooms on the ground floor of Montagu House, and the natural history objects, which took up an entire wing on the second state storey of the building. In 1763, the trustees of the British Museum, under the influence of Peter Collinson and William Watson, employed the former student of Carl Linnaeus, Daniel Solander, to reclassify the natural history collection according to the Linnaean system, thereby making the museum a public centre of learning accessible to the full range of European natural historians. In 1823, King George IV gave the King's Library assembled by George III, and Parliament gave the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the museum's library would expand indefinitely. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the museum acquired for £8,410 its first significant antiquities in Sir William Hamilton's "first" collection of Greek vases.
From 1778, a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books, engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the museum's reputation; but Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.
The museum's first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the museum, dated 31 January 1784, refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the Royal Society in London.
In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid and Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the French campaign in the Battle of the Nile, in 1801, the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculptures and in 1802 King George III presented the Rosetta Stone – key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs. Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British consul general in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture. Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman sculpture, in 1805. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to the UK. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art were acquired by the British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter. The collections were supplemented by the Bassae frieze from Phigaleia, Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities from the widow of Claudius James Rich.
In 1802 a buildings committee was set up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the King's Library, personal library of King George III's, comprising 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawings. The neoclassical architect, Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the museum "... for the reception of the Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..." and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished and work on the King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the National Gallery, London in 1824,[e] the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural history collections.
The first Synopsis of the British Museum was published in 1808. This described the contents of the museum, and the display of objects room by room, and updated editions were published every few years.
As Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose, the museum became a construction site. The King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London. Although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851.
In 1840, the museum became involved in its first overseas excavations, Charles Fellows's expedition to Xanthos, in Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lycia, among them the Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857, Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard and others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets, which helped to make the museum a focus for Assyrian studies.
Sir Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), a trustee of the British Museum from 1830, assembled a library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.
The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for Assyrian sculptures and Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in South Kensington, which would later become the British Museum of Natural History.
Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now part of the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library, the largest library in the world after the National Library of Paris. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.
Until the mid-19th century, the museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, branching out into Asia and diversifying its holdings of ethnography. A real coup for the museum was the purchase in 1867, over French objections, of the Duke of Blacas's wide-ranging and valuable collection of antiquities. Overseas excavations continued and John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, another Wonder of the Ancient World.
The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum of Natural History in 1887, nowadays the Natural History Museum. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.
The William Burges collection of armoury was bequeathed to the museum in 1881. In 1882, the museum was involved in the establishment of the independent Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator, A. W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, over 30,000 bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the Oxus Treasure.
In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the Waddesdon Bequest, the glittering contents from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of objets d'art et de vertu which included exquisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica, among them the Holy Thorn Reliquary, probably created in the 1390s in Paris for John, Duke of Berry. The collection was in the tradition of a Schatzkammer such as those formed by the Renaissance princes of Europe. Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be
placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it.
These terms are still observed, and the collection occupies room 2a.
By the last years of the 19th century, The British Museum's collections had increased to the extent that its building was no longer large enough. In 1895 the trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the west, north and east sides of the museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.
All the while, the collections kept growing. Emil Torday collected in Central Africa, Aurel Stein in Central Asia, D.G. Hogarth, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence excavated at Carchemish. Around this time, the American collector and philanthropist J Pierpont Morgan donated a substantial number of objects to the museum, including William Greenwell's collection of prehistoric artefacts from across Europe which he had purchased for £10,000 in 1908. Morgan had also acquired a major part of Sir John Evans's coin collection, which was later sold to the museum by his son John Pierpont Morgan Junior in 1915. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated via the London Post Office Railway to Holborn, the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919 some objects were found to have deteriorated. A conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence. In 1923, the British Museum welcomed over one million visitors.
New mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In 1931, the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades.[f]
Following the retirement of George Francis Hill as Director and Principal Librarian in 1936, he was succeeded by John Forsdyke.
As tensions with Nazi Germany developed and it appeared that war may be imminent Forsdyke came to the view that with the likelihood of far worse air-raids than that experienced in World War I that the museum had to make preparations to remove its most valuable items to secure locations. Following the Munich crisis Forsdyke ordered 3,300 No-Nail Boxes and stored them in the basement of Duveen Gallery. At the same time he began identifying and securing suitable locations. As a result the museum was able to quickly commence relocating selected items on 24 August 1939, (a mere day after the Home Secretary advised them to do so), to secure basements, country houses, Aldwych Underground station and the National Library of Wales. Many items were relocated in early 1942 from their initial dispersal locations to a newly developed facility at Westwood Quarry in Wiltshire. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing. Meanwhile, prior to the war, the Nazis had sent a researcher to the British Museum for several years with the aim of "compiling an anti-Semitic history of Anglo-Jewry".
After the war, the museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2600 BC Mesopotamian treasure from Ur, discovered during Leonard Woolley's 1922–34 excavations. Gold, silver and garnet grave goods from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946). The immediate post-war years were taken up with the return of the collections from protection and the restoration of the museum after the Blitz. Work also began on restoring the damaged Duveen Gallery.
In 1953, the museum celebrated its bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full-time in-house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, the Friends organisation was set up in 1968, an Education Service established in 1970 and publishing house in 1973. In 1963, a new Act of Parliament introduced administrative reforms. It became easier to lend objects, the constitution of the board of trustees changed and the Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries. In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.[g]
By the 1970s the museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints and drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 1+1⁄4 miles (2.0 km) of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.
The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – which opened in 2000. The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind at 6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries in the museum in 2000.
The museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.
Today the museum no longer houses collections of natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over 13 million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.
The Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre.
With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum empty, the demolition for Lord Foster's glass-roofed Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family – with the donation valued at £25 million.
As part of its very large website, the museum has the largest online database of objects in the collection of any museum in the world, with 2,000,000 individual object entries, 650,000 of them illustrated, online at the start of 2012. There is also a "Highlights" database with longer entries on over 4,000 objects, and several specialised online research catalogues and online journals (all free to access). In 2013 the museum's website received 19.5 millions visits, an increase of 47% from the previous year.
In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year. Popular exhibitions including "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum" and "Ice Age Art" are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors. Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public. A number of films have been shot at the British Museum.
The British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the Director of the British Museum. The British Museum was run from its inception by a 'principal librarian' (when the book collections were still part of the museum), a role that was renamed 'director and principal librarian' in 1898, and 'director' in 1973 (on the separation of the British Library).
A board of 25 trustees (with the director as their accounting officer for the purposes of reporting to Government) is responsible for the general management and control of the museum, in accordance with the British Museum Act 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act 1992. Prior to the 1963 Act, it was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The board was formed on the museum's inception to hold its collections in trust for the nation without actually owning them themselves, and now fulfil a mainly advisory role. Trustee appointments are governed by the regulatory framework set out in the code of practice on public appointments issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 45 ft (14 m) high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance is decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, installed in 1852.
The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823–1828, followed by the North Wing in 1833–1838, which originally housed among other galleries a reading room, now the Wellcome Gallery. Work was also progressing on the northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826–1831, with Montagu House demolished in 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing with its great colonnade, initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847, when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public. The museum is faced with Portland stone, but the perimeter walls and other parts of the building were built using Haytor granite from Dartmoor in South Devon, transported via the unique Haytor Granite Tramway.
In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854–1857; at 140 feet (43 m) in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.
The next major addition was the White Wing 1882–1884 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.
In 1895, Parliament gave the museum trustees a loan of £200,000 to purchase from the Duke of Bedford all 69 houses which backed onto the museum building in the five surrounding streets – Great Russell Street, Montague Street, Montague Place, Bedford Square and Bloomsbury Street. The trustees planned to demolish these houses and to build around the west, north and east sides of the museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the museum stands. The architect Sir John James Burnet was petitioned to put forward ambitious long-term plans to extend the building on all three sides. Most of the houses in Montague Place were knocked down a few years after the sale. Of this grand plan only the Edward VII galleries in the centre of the North Front were ever constructed, these were built 1906–14 to the design by J.J. Burnet, and opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914. They now house the museum's collections of Prints and Drawings and Oriental Antiquities. There was not enough money to put up more new buildings, and so the houses in the other streets are nearly all still standing.
The Duveen Gallery, sited to the west of the Egyptian, Greek & Assyrian sculpture galleries, was designed to house the Elgin Marbles by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938, it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict for 22 years, before reopening in 1962. Other areas damaged during World War II bombing included: in September 1940 two unexploded bombs hit the Edward VII galleries, the King's Library received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, incendiaries fell on the dome of the Round Reading Room but did little damage; on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941 several incendiaries fell on the south-west corner of the museum, destroying the book stack and 150,000 books in the courtyard and the galleries around the top of the Great Staircase – this damage was not fully repaired until the early 1960s.
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is a covered square at the centre of the British Museum designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners. The Great Court opened in December 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe. The roof is a glass and steel construction, built by an Austrian steelwork company, with 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library, its functions now moved to St Pancras. The Reading Room is open to any member of the public who wishes to read there.
Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest museums in the world, covering an area of over 92,000 m2 (990,000 sq. ft).[failed verification] In addition to 21,600 m2 (232,000 sq. ft) of on-site storage space, and 9,400 m2 (101,000 sq. ft) of external storage space. Altogether, the British Museum showcases on public display less than 1% of its entire collection, approximately 50,000 items.
There are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, representing 2 miles (3.2 km) of exhibition space, although the less popular ones have restricted opening times. However, the lack of a large temporary exhibition space led to the £135 million World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre to provide one and to concentrate all the museum's conservation facilities into one centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. It was granted planning permission in December 2009 and was completed in time for the Viking exhibition in March 2014. In 2017, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture.
Blythe House in West Kensington is used by the museum for off-site storage of small and medium-sized artefacts, and Franks House in East London is used for storage and work on the "Early Prehistory" – Palaeolithic and Mesolithic – and some other collections.
The British Museum houses the world's largest[h] and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities (with over 100,000 pieces) outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A collection of immense importance for its range and quality, it includes objects of all periods from virtually every site of importance in Egypt and the Sudan. Together, they illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley (including Nubia), from the Predynastic Neolithic period (c. 10,000 BC) through Coptic (Christian) times (12th century AD), and up to the present day, a time-span over 11,000 years.
Egyptian antiquities have formed part of the British Museum collection ever since its foundation in 1753 after receiving 160 Egyptian objects from Sir Hans Sloane. After the defeat of the French forces under Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities collected were confiscated by the British army and presented to the British Museum in 1803. These works, which included the famed Rosetta Stone, were the first important group of large sculptures to be acquired by the museum. Thereafter, the UK appointed Henry Salt as consul in Egypt who amassed a huge collection of antiquities, some of which were assembled and transported with great ingenuity by the famous Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni. Most of the antiquities Salt collected were purchased by the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre.
By 1866 the collection consisted of some 10,000 objects. Antiquities from excavations started to come to the museum in the latter part of the 19th century as a result of the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund under the efforts of E.A. Wallis Budge. Over the years more than 11,000 objects came from this source, including pieces from Amarna, Bubastis and Deir el-Bahari. Other organisations and individuals also excavated and donated objects to the British Museum, including Flinders Petrie's Egypt Research Account and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, as well as the University of Oxford Expedition to Kawa and Faras in Sudan.
Active support by the museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in important acquisitions throughout the 20th century until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of policies allowing finds to be exported, although divisions still continue in Sudan. The British Museum conducted its own excavations in Egypt where it received divisions of finds, including Asyut (1907), Mostagedda and Matmar (1920s), Ashmunein (1980s) and sites in Sudan such as Soba, Kawa and the Northern Dongola Reach (1990s). The size of the Egyptian collections now stand at over 110,000 objects.
In autumn 2001 the eight million objects forming the museum's permanent collection were further expanded by the addition of six million objects from the Wendorf Collection of Egyptian and Sudanese Prehistory. These were donated by Professor Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University in Texas, and comprise the entire collection of artefacts and environmental remains from his excavations at Prehistoric sites in the Sahara Desert between 1963 and 1997. Other fieldwork collections have recently come from Dietrich and Rosemarie Klemm (University of Munich) and William Adams (University of Kentucky).
The seven permanent Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, which include its largest exhibition space (Room 4, for monumental sculpture), can display only 4% of its Egyptian holdings. The second-floor galleries have a selection of the museum's collection of 140 mummies and coffins, the largest outside Cairo. A high proportion of the collection comes from tombs or contexts associated with the cult of the dead, and it is these pieces, in particular the mummies, that remain among the most eagerly sought-after exhibits by visitors to the museum.
Highlights of the collections include:
Predynastic and Early Dynastic period (c. 6000 BC – c. 2690 BC)
Old Kingdom (2690–2181 BC)
Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC)
Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC)
New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC)
Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BC)
Late Period (664–332 BC)
Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC)
Roman Period (30 BC – 641 AD)
The British Museum has one of the world's largest and most comprehensive collections of antiquities from the Classical world, with over 100,000 objects. These mostly range in date from the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age (about 3200 BC) to the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the Edict of Milan under the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine I in 313 AD. Archaeology was in its infancy during the nineteenth century and many pioneering individuals began excavating sites across the Classical world, chief among them for the museum were Charles Newton, John Turtle Wood, Robert Murdoch Smith and Charles Fellows.
The Greek objects originate from across the Ancient Greek world, from the mainland of Greece and the Aegean Islands, to neighbouring lands in Asia Minor and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean and as far as the western lands of Magna Graecia that include Sicily and southern Italy. The Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are represented, and the Greek collection includes important sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, as well as elements of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.
Beginning from the early Bronze Age, the department also houses one of the widest-ranging collections of Italic and Etruscan antiquities outside Italy, as well as extensive groups of material from Cyprus and non-Greek colonies in Lycia and Caria on Asia Minor. There is some material from the Roman Republic, but the collection's strength is in its comprehensive array of objects from across the Roman Empire, with the exception of Britain (which is the mainstay of the Department of Prehistory and Europe).
The collections of ancient jewellery and bronzes, Greek vases (many from graves in southern Italy that were once part of Sir William Hamilton's and Chevalier Durand's collections), Roman glass including the famous Cameo glass Portland Vase, Roman gold glass (the second largest collection after the Vatican Museums), Roman mosaics from Carthage and Utica in North Africa that were excavated by Nathan Davis, and silver hoards from Roman Gaul (some of which were bequeathed by the philanthropist and museum trustee Richard Payne Knight), are particularly important. Cypriot antiquities are strong too and have benefited from the purchase of Sir Robert Hamilton Lang's collection as well as the bequest of Emma Turner in 1892, which funded many excavations on the island. Roman sculptures (many of which are copies of Greek originals) are particularly well represented by the Townley collection as well as residual sculptures from the famous Farnese collection.
Objects from the Department of Greece and Rome are located throughout the museum, although many of the architectural monuments are to be found on the ground floor, with connecting galleries from Gallery 5 to Gallery 23. On the upper floor, there are galleries devoted to smaller material from ancient Italy, Greece, Cyprus and the Roman Empire.
The current collection includes:
Temple of Hephaestus
Temple of Athena Nike
Choragic Monument of Thrasyllos
Tower of the Winds
Temple of Poseidon, Sounion
Temple of Nemesis, Rhamnus
Temple of Bassae
Sanctuary of Apollo at Daphni
Temple of Athena Polias, Priene
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Temple of Artemis in Ephesus
Knidos in Asia Minor
Xanthos in Asia Minor
Temple of Zeus, Salamis in Cyprus
Prehistoric Greece and Italy (3300 BC – 8th century BC)
Etruscan (8th century BC – 1st century BC)
Ancient Greece (8th century BC – 4th century AD)
Ancient Rome (1st century BC – 4th century AD)
The collection encompasses architectural, sculptural and epigraphic items from many other sites across the classical world including Amathus, Atripalda, Aphrodisias, Delos, Iasos, Idalion, Lindus, Kalymnos, Kerch, Rhamnous, Salamis, Sestos, Sounion, Tomis and Thessaloniki.
With a collection numbering some 330,000 works, the British Museum possesses the world's largest and most important collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. A collection of immense importance, the holdings of Assyrian sculpture, Babylonian and Sumerian antiquities are among the most comprehensive in the world with entire suites of rooms panelled in alabaster Assyrian palace reliefs from Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad.
The collections represent the civilisations of the ancient Near East and its adjacent areas. These cover Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia, Syria, the Holy Land and Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean from the prehistoric period and include objects from the 7th century.
The first significant addition of Mesopotamian objects was from the collection of Claudius James Rich in 1825. The collection was later dramatically enlarged by the excavations of A. H. Layard at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845 and 1851. At Nimrud, Layard discovered the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, as well as three other palaces and various temples. He later uncovered the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh with 'no less than seventy-one halls'. As a result, a large numbers of Lamassus, palace reliefs, stelae, including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, were brought to the British Museum.
Layard's work was continued by his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam and in 1852–1854 he went on to discover the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh with many magnificent reliefs, including the famous Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal and Lachish reliefs. He also discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, a large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance that today number around 130,000 pieces. W. K. Loftus excavated in Nimrud between 1850 and 1855 and found a remarkable hoard of ivories in the Burnt Palace. Between 1878 and 1882 Rassam greatly improved the museum's holdings with exquisite objects including the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates from Balawat, important objects from Sippar, and a fine collection of Urartian bronzes from Toprakkale including a copper figurine of a winged, human-headed bull.
In the early 20th century excavations were carried out at Carchemish, Turkey by D. G. Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, the latter assisted by T. E. Lawrence. The Mesopotamian collections were greatly augmented by excavations in southern Iraq after the First World War. From Tell al-Ubaid came the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, including life-sized lions and a panel featuring the lion-headed eagle Indugud found by H. R. Hall in 1919–24. Woolley went on to excavate Ur between 1922 and 1934, discovering the 'Royal Cemeteries' of the 3rd millennium BC. Some of the masterpieces include the 'Standard of Ur', the 'Ram in a Thicket', the 'Royal Game of Ur', and two bull-headed lyres. The department also has three diorite statues of the ruler Gudea from the ancient state of Lagash and a series of limestone kudurru or boundary stones from different locations across ancient Mesopotamia.
Although the collections centre on Mesopotamia, most of the surrounding areas are well represented. The Achaemenid collection was enhanced with the addition of the Oxus Treasure in 1897 and objects excavated by the German scholar Ernst Herzfeld and the Hungarian-British explorer Sir Aurel Stein. Reliefs and sculptures from the site of Persepolis were donated by Sir Gore Ouseley in 1825 and the 5th Earl of Aberdeen in 1861 and the museum received part of a pot-hoard of jewellery from Pasargadae as the division of finds in 1963 and part of the Ziwiye hoard in 1971. A large column base from the One Hundred Column Hall at Persepolis was acquired in exchange from the Oriental Institute, Chicago. Moreover, the museum has been able to acquire one of the greatest assemblages of Achaemenid silverware in the world. The later Sasanian Empire is also well represented by ornate silver plates and cups, many representing ruling monarchs hunting lions and deer. Phoenician antiquities come from across the region, but the Tharros collection from Sardinia, the hoard of 16 metal bowls and hundreds of ivories from Nimrud and the large number of Phoenician stelae from Carthage and Maghrawa are outstanding. The number of Phoenician inscriptions from sites across Cyprus is also considerable, and include artefacts found at the Kition necropolis (with the two Kition Tariffs having the longest Phoenician inscription discovered on the island), the Idalion temple site and two bilingual pedestals found at Tamassos. Another often overlooked highlight is Yemeni antiquities, the finest collection outside that country. Furthermore, the museum has a representative collection of Dilmun and Parthian material excavated from various burial mounds at the ancient sites of A'ali and Shakhura (that included a Roman ribbed glass bowl) in Bahrain.
From the modern state of Syria come almost forty funerary busts from Palmyra and a group of stone reliefs from the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf that was purchased in 1920. More material followed from the excavations of Max Mallowan at Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak in 1935–1938 and from Woolley at Alalakh in the years just before and after the Second World War. Mallowan returned with his wife Agatha Christie to carry out further digs at Nimrud in the postwar period which secured many important artefacts for the museum. The collection of Palestinian material was strengthened by the work of Kathleen Kenyon at Tell es-Sultan (Jericho) in the 1950s and the acquisition in 1980 of around 17,000 objects found at Lachish by the Wellcome-Marston expedition of 1932–1938. Archaeological digs are still taking place where permitted in the Middle East, and, depending on the country, the museum continues to receive a share of the finds from sites such as Tell es Sa'idiyeh in Jordan.
The museum's collection of Islamic art, including archaeological material, numbers about 40,000 objects, one of the largest of its kind in the world. As such, it contains a broad range of pottery, paintings, tiles, metalwork, glass, seals, and inscriptions from across the Islamic world, from Spain in the west to India in the east. It is particularly famous for its collection of Iznik ceramics (the largest in the world), its large number of mosque lamps including one from the Dome of the Rock, mediaeval metalwork such as the Vaso Vescovali with its depictions of the Zodiac, a fine selection of astrolabes, and Mughal paintings and precious artwork including a large jade terrapin made for the emperor Jahangir. Thousands of objects were excavated after the war by professional archaeologists at Iranian sites such as Siraf by David Whitehouse and Alamut Castle by Peter Willey. The collection was augmented in 1983 by the Godman bequest of Iznik, Hispano-Moresque and early Iranian pottery. Artefacts from the Islamic world are on display in Gallery 34 of the museum.
A representative selection from the Department of Middle East, including the most important pieces, are on display in 13 galleries throughout the museum and total some 4,500 objects. A whole suite of rooms on the ground floor display the sculptured reliefs from the Assyrian palaces at Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, while 8 galleries on the upper floor hold smaller material from ancient sites across the Middle East. The remainder form the study collection which ranges in size from beads to large sculptures. They include approximately 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia.
Highlights of the collections include:
Assyrian palace reliefs from:
Sculptures and inscriptions:
Assyrian palace reliefs and sculptures from:
Royal Library of Ashurbanipal:
The Department of Prints and Drawings holds the national collection of Western prints and drawings. It ranks as one of the largest and best print room collections in existence alongside the Albertina in Vienna, the Paris collections and the Hermitage. The holdings are easily accessible to the general public in the Study Room, unlike many such collections. The department also has its own exhibition gallery in Room 90, where the displays and exhibitions change several times a year.
Since its foundation in 1808, the prints and drawings collection has grown to international renown as one of the richest and most representative collections in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints. The collection of drawings covers the period from the 14th century to the present, and includes many works of the highest quality by the leading artists of the European schools. The collection of prints covers the tradition of fine printmaking from its beginnings in the 15th century up to the present, with near complete holdings of most of the great names before the 19th century. Key benefactors to the department have been Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, Richard Payne Knight, John Malcolm, Campbell Dodgson, César Mange de Hauke and Tomás Harris. Writer and author Louis Alexander Fagan, who worked in the department 1869-1894 made significant contributions to the department in form of his Handbook to the Department, as well as various other books about the museum in general.
There are groups of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, (including his only surviving full-scale cartoon), Dürer (a collection of 138 drawings is one of the finest in existence), Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude and Watteau, and largely complete collections of the works of all the great printmakers including Dürer (99 engravings, 6 etchings and most of his 346 woodcuts), Rembrandt and Goya. More than 30,000 British drawings and watercolours include important examples of work by Hogarth, Sandby, Turner, Girtin, Constable, Cotman, Cox, Gillray, Rowlandson, Towne and Cruikshank, as well as all the great Victorians. The collection contains the unique set of watercolours by the pioneering colonist John White, the first British artist in America and first European to paint Native Americans. There are about a million British prints including more than 20,000 satires and outstanding collections of works by William Blake and Thomas Bewick.. The great eleven volume Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum compiled between 1870 and 1954 is the definitive reference work for the study of British Satirical prints. Over 500,000 objects from the department are now on the online collection database, many with high-quality images. A 2011 donation of £1 million enabled the museum to acquire a complete set of Pablo Picasso's Vollard Suite.
The Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory is responsible for collections that cover a vast expanse of time and geography. It includes some of the earliest objects made by humans in east Africa over 2 million years ago, as well as Prehistoric and neolithic objects from other parts of the world; and the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day. Archeological excavation of prehistoric material took off and expanded considerably in the twentieth century and the department now has literally millions of objects from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods throughout the world, as well as from the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age in Europe. Stone Age material from Africa has been donated by famous archaeologists such as Louis and Mary Leakey, and Gertrude Caton–Thompson. Paleolithic objects from the Sturge, Christy and Lartet collections include some of the earliest works of art from Europe. Many Bronze Age objects from across Europe were added during the nineteenth century, often from large collections built up by excavators and scholars such as Greenwell in Britain, Tobin and Cooke in Ireland, Lukis and de la Grancière in Brittany, Worsaae in Denmark, Siret at El Argar in Spain, and Klemm and Edelmann in Germany. A representative selection of Iron Age artefacts from Hallstatt were acquired as a result of the Evans/Lubbock excavations and from Giubiasco in Ticino through the Swiss National Museum.
In addition, the British Museum's collections covering the period AD 300 to 1100 are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, extending from Spain to the Black Sea and from North Africa to Scandinavia; a representative selection of these has recently been redisplayed in a newly refurbished gallery. Important collections include Latvian, Norwegian, Gotlandic and Merovingian material from Johann Karl Bähr, Alfred Heneage Cocks, Sir James Curle and Philippe Delamain respectively. However, the undoubted highlight from the early mediaeval period is the magnificent items from the Sutton Hoo royal grave, generously donated to the nation by the landowner Edith Pretty. The late mediaeval collection includes a large number of seal-dies from across Europe, the most famous of which include those from the Town of Boppard in Germany, Isabella of Hainault from her tomb in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Inchaffray Abbey in Scotland and Robert Fitzwalter, one of the Barons who led the revolt against King John in England. There is also a large collection of medieval signet rings, prominent among them is the gold signet ring belonging to Jean III de Grailly who fought in the Hundred Years' War, as well as those of Mary, Queen of Scots and Richard I of England. Other groups of artefacts represented in the department include the national collection of (c.100) icon paintings, most of which originate from the Byzantine Empire and Russia, and over 40 mediaeval astrolabes from across Europe and the Middle East. The department also includes the national collection of horology with one of the most wide-ranging assemblage of clocks, watches and other timepieces in Europe, with masterpieces from every period in the development of time-keeping. Choice horological pieces came from the Morgan and Ilbert collections. The department is also responsible for the curation of Romano-British objects – the museum has by far the most extensive such collection in Britain and one of the most representative regional collections in Europe outside Italy. It is particularly famous for the large number of late Roman silver treasures, many of which were found in East Anglia, the most important of which is the Mildenhall Treasure. The museum purchased many Roman-British objects from the antiquarian Charles Roach Smith in 1856. These quickly formed the nucleus of the collection. The department also includes ethnographic material from across Europe including a collection of Bulgarian costumes and shadow puppets from Greece and Turkey. A particular highlight are the three Sámi drums from northern Sweden of which only about 70 are extant.
Objects from the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory are mostly found on the upper floor of the museum, with a suite of galleries numbered from 38 to 51. Most of the collection is stored in its archive facilities, where it is available for research and study.
Highlights of the collections include:
Stone Age (c. 3.4 million years BC – c. 2000 BC)
Bronze Age (c. 3300 BC – c. 600 BC)
Iron Age (c. 600 BC – c. 1st century AD)
Romano-British (43 AD – 410 AD)
Early Mediaeval (c. 4th century AD – c. 1000 AD)
Mediaeval (c. 1000 AD – c. 1500 AD)
Renaissance to Modern (c. 1500 AD – present)
The many hoards of treasure include those of Esquiline, Carthage, First Cyprus, Hockwold, Hoxne, Lampsacus, Mildenhall, Vale of York and Water Newton, (4th–10th centuries AD)
The scope of the Department of Asia is extremely broad; its collections of over 75,000 objects cover the material culture of the whole Asian continent (from East, South, Central and South-East Asia) and from the Neolithic up to the present day. Until recently, this department concentrated on collecting Oriental antiquities from urban or semi-urban societies across the Asian continent. Many of those objects were collected by colonial officers and explorers in former parts of the British Empire, especially the Indian subcontinent. Examples include the collections made by individuals such as James Wilkinson Breeks, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Sir Harold Deane, Sir Walter Elliot, James Prinsep, Charles Masson, Sir John Marshall and Charles Stuart. A large number of Chinese antiquities were purchased from the Anglo-Greek banker George Eumorfopoulos in the 1930s. The large collection of some 1800 Japanese prints and paintings owned by Arthur Morrison was acquired in the early twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, the museum greatly benefited from the bequest of the philanthropist PT Brooke Sewell, which allowed the department to purchase many objects and fill in gaps in the collection.
In 2004, the ethnographic collections from Asia were transferred to the department. These reflect the diverse environment of the largest continent in the world and range from India to China, the Middle East to Japan. Much of the ethnographic material comes from objects originally owned by tribal cultures and hunter-gatherers, many of whose way of life has disappeared in the last century. Particularly valuable collections are from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (much assembled by the British naval officer Maurice Portman), Sri Lanka (especially through the colonial administrator Hugh Nevill), Northern Thailand, south-west China, the Ainu of Hokaidu in Japan (chief among them the collection of the Scottish zoologist John Anderson), Siberia (with artefacts collected by the explorer Kate Marsden and Bassett Digby and is notable for its Sakha pieces, especially the ivory model of a summer festival at Yakutsk) and the islands of South-East Asia, especially Borneo. The latter benefited from the purchase in 1905 of the Sarawak collection put together by Dr Charles Hose, as well as from other colonial officers such as Edward A Jeffreys. In addition, a unique and valuable group of objects from Java, including shadow puppets and a gamelan musical set, was assembled by Sir Stamford Raffles.
The principal gallery devoted to Asian art in the museum is Gallery 33 with its comprehensive display of Chinese, Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asian objects. An adjacent gallery showcases the Amaravati sculptures and monuments. Other galleries on the upper floors are devoted to its Japanese, Korean, painting and calligraphy, and Chinese ceramics collections.
Highlights of the collections include:
The British Museum houses one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Ethnographic material from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, representing the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Over 350,000 objects spanning thousands of years tells the history of mankind from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures; the collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing. Many individuals have added to the department's collection over the years but those assembled by Henry Christy, Harry Beasley and William Oldman are outstanding.
Objects from this department are mostly on display in several galleries on the ground and lower floors. Gallery 24 displays ethnographic from every continent while adjacent galleries focus on North America and Mexico. A long suite of rooms (Gallery 25) on the lower floor display African art. There are plans in place to develop permanent galleries for showcasing art from Oceania and South America.
The Sainsbury African Galleries display 600 objects from the greatest permanent collection of African arts and culture in the world. The three permanent galleries provide a substantial exhibition space for the museum's African collection comprising over 200,000 objects. A curatorial scope that encompasses both archaeological and contemporary material, including both unique masterpieces of artistry and objects of everyday life. A great addition was material amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome, which was donated by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1954.
Highlights of the African collection include objects found at megalithic circles in The Gambia, a dozen exquisite Afro-Portuguese ivories, a series of soapstone figures from the Kissi people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, hoard of bronze Kru currency rings from the Sinoe River in Liberia, Asante goldwork and regalia from Ghana including the Bowdich collection, the rare Akan Drum from the same region in west Africa, pair of door panels and lintel from the palace at Ikere-Ekiti in Yorubaland, the Benin and Igbo-Ukwu bronze sculptures, the beautiful Bronze Head of Queen Idia, a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler and quartz throne from Ife, a similar terracotta head from Iwinrin Grove near Ife, the Apapa Hoard from Lagos and other mediaeval bronze hoards from Allabia and the Forçados River in southern Nigeria.
Included is an Ikom monolith from Cross River State, several ancestral screens from the Kalabari tribe in the Niger Delta, the Torday collection of central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry from the Kuba Kingdom including three royal figures, the unique Luzira Head from Uganda, processional crosses and other ecclesiastical and royal material from Gondar and Magdala, Ethiopia following the British Expedition to Abyssinia, excavated objects from Great Zimbabwe (that includes a unique soapstone, anthropomorphic figure) and satellite towns such as Mutare including a large hoard of Iron Age soapstone figures, a rare divining bowl from the Venda peoples and cave paintings and petroglyphs from South Africa.
The British Museum's Oceanic collections originate from the vast area of the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island, from New Zealand to Hawaii. The three main anthropological groups represented in the collection are Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia – Aboriginal art from Australia is considered separately in its own right. Metal working was not indigenous to Oceania before Europeans arrived, so many of the artefacts from the collection are made from stone, shell, bone and bamboo. Prehistoric objects from the region include a bird-shaped pestle and a group of stone mortars from Papua New Guinea.
The British Museum is fortunate in having some of the earliest Oceanic and Pacific collections, many of which were put together by members of Cook's and Vancouver's expeditions or by colonial administrators and explorers such as Sir George Grey, Sir Frederick Broome, Joseph Bradshaw, Robert Christison, Gregory Mathews, Frederick Meinertzhagen, Thomas Mitchell and Arthur Gordon, before Western culture significantly impacted on indigenous cultures. The department has also benefited greatly from the legacy of pioneering anthropologists such as AC Haddon, Bronisław Malinowski and Katherine Routledge. An artefact is a wooden Aboriginal shield, probably dating from the late eighteenth century. There is some debate as to whether this shield was found at Botany Bay or, given the nature of the wood being red mangrove which grows abundantly only 500 km north of Botany Bay, possibly obtained through trade networks or at an entirely different location.
The Wilson cabinet of curiosities from Palau is an example of pre-contact ware. Another outstanding exemplar is the mourner's dress from Tahiti given to Cook on his second voyage, one of only ten in existence. In the collection is a large war canoe from the island of Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands, one of the last ever to be built in the archipelago.
The Māori collection is the finest outside New Zealand with many intricately carved wooden and jade objects and the Aboriginal art collection is distinguished by its wide range of bark paintings, including two very early bark etchings collected by John Hunter Kerr. A particularly important group of objects was purchased from the London Missionary Society in 1911, that includes the unique statue of A'a from Rurutu Island, the rare idol from the isle of Mangareva and the Cook Islands deity figure. Other highlights include the huge Hawaiian statue of Kū-ka-ili-moku or god of war (one of three extant in the world) and the famous Easter Island statues Hoa Hakananai'a and Moai Hava.
The Americas collection mainly consists of 19th and 20th century items although the Paracas, Moche, Inca, Maya, Aztec, Taino and other early cultures are well represented. The Kayung totem pole, which was made in the late nineteenth century on Haida Gwaii, dominates the Great Court and provides a fitting introduction to this very wide-ranging collection that stretches from the very north of the North American continent where the Inuit population has lived for centuries, to the tip of South America where indigenous tribes have long thrived in Patagonia.
Highlights of the collection include Aboriginal Canadian and Native American objects from North America collected by the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, the Marquis of Lorne, the explorer David Haig-Thomas and Bryan Mullanphy, Mayor of St. Louis, the Squier and Davis collection of prehistoric mound relics from North America, two carved stone bowls in the form of a seated human figure made by ancient North West Coast peoples from British Columbia, the headdress of Chief Yellow Calf from the Arapaho tribe in Wyoming, a lidded rivercane basket from South Carolina and the earliest historic example of Cherokee basketry, a selection of pottery vessels found in prehistoric dwellings at Mesa Verde and Casas Grandes, one of the enigmatic crystal skulls of unknown origin, a collection of nine turquoise Aztec mosaics from Mexico (the largest in Europe), important artefacts from Teotihuacan and Isla de Sacrificios.
There are several rare pre-Columbian manuscripts including the Codex Zouche-Nuttall and Codex Waecker-Gotter and post-colonial ones such as the Codex Aubin and Codex Kingsborough, a spectacular series of Mayan lintels from Yaxchilan excavated by the British Mayanist Alfred Maudslay, a very high quality Mayan collection that includes sculptures from Copan, Tikal, Tulum, Pusilha, Naranjo and Nebaj (including the celebrated Fenton Vase), an ornate calcite vase with jaguar handles from the Ulua Valley in Honduras, the Lord Moyne collection from the Bay Islands, Honduras and Boyle collection from Nicarugua, over 20 stone metates with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic ornamentation from Costa Rica, a group of Zemi Figures from Vere, Jamaica, and wooden duhos from the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas.
There are a collection of Pre-Columbian human mummies from sites across South America including Ancon, Acari, Arica and Leyva, a number of prestigious pre-Columbian gold and votive objects from Colombia, three axe-shaped gold diadems found near Camaná from the Siguas culture in Peru, unique collection of Moche wooden figures and staffs from the Macabi islands off Peru, ethnographic objects from across the Amazon region including the Schomburgk and Maybury Lewis collections and part of the von Martius and von Spix collection, two rare Tiwanaku pottery vessels from Lake Titicaca and important items from Tierra del Fuego donated by Commander Phillip Parker King.
Main article: British Museum Department of Coins and Medals
The British Museum is home to one of the world's finest numismatic collections, comprising about a million objects, including coins, medals, tokens and paper money. The collection spans the entire history of coinage from its origins in the 7th century BC to the present day and is representative of both the East and West. The Department of Coins and Medals was created in 1861 and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011.
This department was founded in 1920. Conservation has six specialist areas: ceramics & glass; metals; organic material (including textiles); stone, wall paintings and mosaics; Eastern pictorial art and Western pictorial art. The science department has and continues to develop techniques to date artefacts, analyse and identify the materials used in their manufacture, to identify the place an artefact originated and the techniques used in their creation. The department also publishes its findings and discoveries.
This department covers all levels of education, from casual visitors, schools, degree level and beyond. The museum's various libraries hold in excess of 350,000 books, journals and pamphlets covering all areas of the museum's collection. Also the general museum archives which date from its foundation in 1753 are overseen by this department; the individual departments have their own separate archives and libraries covering their various areas of responsibility, which can be consulted by the public on application. The Anthropology Library is especially large, with 120,000 volumes. However, the Paul Hamlyn Library, which had become the central reference library of the British Museum and the only library there freely open to the general public, closed permanently in August 2011. The website and online database of the collection also provide increasing amounts of information.
The British Museum Press (BMP) is the publishing business and a division of the British Museum Company Ltd., a company and a charity (established in 1973) wholly owned by the trustees of the British Museum.
The BMP publishes both popular and scholarly illustrated books to accompany the exhibition programme and explore aspects of the general collection. Profits from their sales goes to support the British Museum.
Scholarly titles are published in the Research Publications series, all of which are peer-reviewed. This series was started in 1978 and was originally called Occasional Papers. The series is designed to disseminate research on items in the collection. Between six and eight titles are published each year in this series.
It is a point of controversy whether museums should be allowed to possess artefacts taken from other countries, and the British Museum is a notable target for criticism. The Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes, Ethiopian Tabots and the Rosetta Stone are among the most disputed objects in its collections, and organisations have been formed demanding the return of these artefacts to their native countries. The Parthenon Marbles (Elgin Marbles) claimed by Greece were also cited by UNESCO, among others, for restitution. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The former director of the museum has stated, "We are indebted to Elgin for having rescued the Parthenon sculptures and others from the Acropolis from the destruction they were suffering, as well as from the damage that the Acropolis monuments, including the sculptures that he did not remove, have suffered since." The British Museum itself damaged some of the artefacts during restoration in the 1930s.
There is also controversy over artefacts taken during the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing by an Anglo-French expeditionary force during the Second Opium War in 1860, an event which drew a protest from Victor Hugo. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others, have been asked since 2009 to open their archives for investigation by a team of Chinese investigators as a part of an international mission to document Chinese national treasures in foreign collections. In 2010 Neil MacGregor, the former Director of the British Museum, said he hoped that both British and Chinese investigators would work together on the controversial collection. In 2020 the museum appointed a curator to research the history of its collections, including disputed items.
The British Museum has stated that the "restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world". The museum has also argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. "The Museum owns its collections, but its Trustees are not empowered to dispose of them". Nevertheless, it has returned items such as Tasmanian Aboriginal burial remains when this was consistent with legislation regarding the disposal of items in the collections.
In late 2022, the British Museum had entered into preliminary negotiations with the Greek government about the future of the Elgin marbles.
In 2002 the heirs of Dr. Arthur Feldmann, an art collector murdered in the Holocaust, requested that four old master drawings stolen by the Gestapo in 1939 be returned to the family. A UK High Court judge ruled in 2005 that it would be illegal for the British Museum to return artworks looted by the Nazis to a Jewish family, despite its willingness and moral obligation to do so.The law was changed in 2009, and again in 2022 giving museums additional powers to return looted art or provide compensation. The heirs of Dr Feldmann accepted a compensation payment for a looted drawing and stated that they were happy the drawing would remain in the British Museum collection.
According to the British Museum Spoliation report published by the Collections Trust in 2017, "Around 30% of some 21,350 continental and British drawings acquired since 1933 have an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the 1933-1945 period". The museum lists these works on its website and investigates claims for restitution.
In recent years there have been several protests against the British Museum's relationship with the oil company BP. In May 2016, the British Museum was temporarily closed after a Greenpeace protest. In February 2019, hundreds of people occupied the museum in protest against the BP sponsorship. In July 2019, Ahdaf Soueif resigned from the British Museum's board of trustees in protest against the sponsorship. In February 2020, 1,500 demonstrators, including British Museum staff, took part in a day of protest over the issue, occupying 11 of the museum's rooms. The PCS union said the museum had a duty to recognise the escalating climate crisis and cut its ties with BP. In reply the museum said: “We are aware of the comments from the PCS union and will continue to liaise with the British Museum PCS branch and our staff more generally.”
The Chairman's Advisory Group is an informal group of business leaders who provide advice to the chairman on various issues including the museum's relationship with the British government and policy on the museum's collections. Its existence was made public after a freedom of information request by a group campaigning against the museum's links with the fossil fuel industry. The museum has declined to name the members of the advisory group as they are acting in their personal capacity.
Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
Department of the Middle East
Department of Greece and Rome
The museum has a collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute to bring the collection online.
Forgotten Empire Exhibition (October 2005 – January 2006)
From January to April 2012 the museum presented Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, the first major exhibition on the topic of the Hajj, the pilgrimage that is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The old Elgin Gallery was painted a deep terracotta red, which, though in some ways satisfactory, diminished its apparent size, and was apt to produce a depressing effect on the visitor. It was decided to experiment with lighter colours, and the walls of the large room were painted with what was, at its first application, a pure cold white, but which after a year's exposure had unfortunately yellowed. The small Elgin Room was painted with pure white tinted with prussian blue, and the Room of the metopes was painted with pure white tinted with cobalt blue and black; it was necessary, for practical reasons, to colour all the dadoes a darker colour
It was not until the 1980s that the installation of a lighting scheme removed his greatest criticism of the building.
It is, I suppose, not positively bad, but it could have been infinitely better. It is pretentious, in that it uses the ancient Marbles to decorate itself. This is a long outmoded idea, and the exact opposite of what a sculpture gallery should do. And, although it incorporates them, it is out of scale, and tends to dwarf them with its bogus Doric features, including those columns, supporting almost nothing which would have made an ancient Greek artist architect wince. The source of daylight is too high above the sculptures, a fault that is only concealed by the amount of reflection from the pinkish marble walls. These are too similar in colour to the marbles...These half-dozen elementary errors were pointed out by everyone in the Museum, and by many scholars outside, when the building was projected.
Beyond the new Lycian room is the READING ROOM: [...]; circular structure; original suggestion of Thomas Watts, improved by A. (Sir A.) Panizzi, carried out by Mr. Sidney Smirke; [...]
The Nazis, in fact, went to great lengths in exploiting Jewish (as well as general) literature. For instance, they arranged for a German researcher to spend several years at the British Museum for the purpose of compiling an anti-Semitic history of Anglo-Jewry, which, at the time, with its 562 pages and a bibliography of some 600 items, was an effort more ambitious than hitherto attempted.