The wonders of the museum brought here to Bloomsbury from all around the world's imagined corners are numberless. How can they be named? As well tally each leaf of a tree. They come here out of the living minds of generations of men and women now dead – Greek and Assyrian, Aztec and Inuit, Chinese and Indian – who have conceived and carved and hammered and tempered and cast these objects to represent the worlds around them, visible and invisible.
The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1887. Until 1997, when the current British Library building opened to the public, the British Museum was unique in that it housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building. Since 2001 the director of the Museum has been Neil MacGregor.
As with all other national museums and art galleries in Britain, the Museum charges no admission fee, although charges are levied for some temporary special exhibitions.
Though principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities today, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and whilst not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for the princely 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 Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.
On 7 June 1753 King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum. The Foundation Act, added two other libraries to the Sloane collection. The Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to Elizabethan times and the Harleian library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the Royal Library, 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 copy of Beowulf.
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, whilst 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, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.
With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759. In 1757 King George II gave the Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note; Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases. 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, but yet contained few ancient relics recognisable to visitors of the modern museum.
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 however 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 sculpture 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 Britain. 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 drawing. 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, the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural History collections.
The Museum became a construction site as Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose. 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, however, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.Archaeological excavations
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 Lykia, 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) was a Trustee of The British Museum from 1830 assembled a fine 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 the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library. 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. 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, now the Natural History Museum, in 1887. 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.
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 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, in the tradition of a schatzkammer or treasure houses 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.
By the last years of the nineteenth century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the Museum building was no longer big enough for them. 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, Emily Torday collected in Central Africa, Aurel Stein in Central Asia, D.G. Hogarth, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence excavated at Carchemish. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated to a Postal Tube Railway at 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 temporary 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.
In 1953 the Museum celebrated its bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full time in house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, A 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.
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 & drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 1 1/4 miles 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.
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.
The Museum was founded 250 years ago as an encyclopædia of nature and of art. Today it 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 thirteen 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. This contains the Paul Hamlyn Library of books about the Museum's collections, which is open to all visitors.
With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum now empty, the process of 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 and Oceanic collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family.
In technical terms, the British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the Director. 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 of 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act of 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. For a list of current trustees, see here
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 (13.7 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 (42.6 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 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 13.5 acres or 75,000 m² of exhibition space, showcasing approximately 50,000 items from its collection. 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 has led to the £100 million North West Development Project to provide one and to concentrate all the Museum's conservation facilities into one Conservation Centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and is expected for completion by 2011.
The British Museum houses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities 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 to the Coptic (Christian) times (12th century AD), 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, Britain appointed Henry Salt as consul in Egypt who amassed a huge collection of antiquities. 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 later 19th century as a result of the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund under the efforts of E.A. Wallis Budge. The collection stood at 57,000 objects by 1924. Active support by the Museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in useful acquisitions throughout the 20th century until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of policies allowing finds to be exported. The size of the Egyptian collections now stands 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 between 1963 and 1997. They are in the care of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan.
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.Key highlights of the collections Include:
The Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of 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 3200BC) to the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century AD, with some pagan survivals.
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 Halikarnassos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.
The Department also houses one of the widest-ranging collections of Italic and Etruscan antiquities and extensive groups of material from Cyprus. The collections of ancient jewellery and bronzes, Greek vases and Roman glass and silver are particularly important.
Key highlights of the collections include:
Formerly the Department of the Ancient Near East, the Department recently became the Department of the Middle East when the collections from the Islamic world were moved from the Department of Asia into this department.
With approximately 330,000 objects in the collection, the British Museum has the greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. The holdings of Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian antiquities are among the most comprehensive in the world.
The collections represent the civilisations of the ancient Near East and its adjacent areas. These include Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia, Syria, Palestine and Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean from the prehistoric period until the beginning of Islam in the 7th century. The collection includes six iconic winged human-headed statues from Nimrud and Khorsabad. Stone bas-reliefs, including the famous Royal Lion Hunt relief's (Room 10), that were found in the palaces of the Assyrian kings at Nimrud and Nineveh. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and Sumerian treasures found in Royal Cemetery's at Ur of the Chaldees.
The earliest Mesopotamian objects to enter collections purchased by the British Museum in 1772 from Sir William Hamilton. The Museum also acquired at this early date a number of sculptures from Persepolis. The next significant addition (in 1825) was from the collection of Claudius James Rich. The collection was dramatically enlarged by the excavations of A. H. Layard at the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845–1851.
At Nimrud, Layard discovered the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, as well as three other palaces and various temples. He also opened in the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh with 'no less than seventy-one halls'. As a result a large numbers of Lamassu's, bas-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 Royal Lion Hunt scenes. He also discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, a large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance. W. K. Loftus excavated in Nimrud between 1850–1855 and found a remarkable hoard of ivories in the Burnt Palace. Between 1878–1882 Rassam greatly improved the Museum's holdings with exquisite objects including the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon, the bronze gates from Balawat, and a fine collection of Urartian bronzes. Rassam collected thousands of cuneiform tablets, today with the acquisition of further tablets in the 20th century, the collection now numbers around 130,000 pieces. In the 20th century excavations were carried out at Carchemish, Syria, between 1911–1914 and in 1920 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 in 1919 and 1923–1924, directed by H. R. Hall came the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, including life-sized lions and a panel featuring the lion-headed eagle Indugud. Woolley went onto to excavate Ur between 1922–1934, 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.
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, by acquisition from the German scholar Ernst Herzfeld, and then by the work of Sir Aurel Stein. From Palmyra there is a large collection of nearly forty funerary busts, acquired in the 19th century. A group of stone reliefs from the excavations of Max von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf, purchased in 1920. More excavated material 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. The collection of Palestinian material was strengthened with the acquisition in 1980 of around 17,000 objects found at Lachish by the Wellcome-Marston expedition of 1932–1938.
A representative selection, including the most important pieces, are on display in 13 galleries and total some 4500 objects. The remainder form the study collection which ranges in size from beads to large sculptures. They include approximately 130,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia.
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 Islamic pottery, paintings, tiles, metalwork, glass, seals, and inscriptions.Key Highlights of the Collections include:
Alabaster bas-reliefs from:
The Department of Prints and Drawings holds the national collection of Western Prints and Drawings. It ranks as one of the largest collections in existence alongside the Musée du Louvre and the Hermitage as one of the top three collections of its kind.
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 14th century to the present, and includes many works of the highest quality by the leading artists of the European school. 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.
There are magnificent 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 virtually complete collections of the works of all the great printmakers including unsurpassed holdings of prints by Dürer (99 engravings, 6 etchings and a substantial number of his 346 woodcuts), Rembrandt and Goya. More than 30,000 British drawings and watercolours include important examples work by Hogarth, Sandby, Turner, Girtin, Constable, Cotman, Cox, Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, as well as all the great Victorians. 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 scope of the Department of Asia is extremely broad, its collections of over 75,000 objects covers 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.
Key highlights of the collections include:
The British Museum houses one of the world's greatest and 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 two million years tells the story of the history of man, from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures.
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.
Highlights of the African collection include a magnificent brass head of a Yoruba ruler from Ife, Nigeria; Asante goldwork from Ghana and the Torday collection of Central African sculpture, textiles and weaponry.
The British Museum is home to one of the world's finest numismatic collections, comprising about a million objects. The collection spans the entire history of coinage from its origins in the 7th century BC to the present day. There are approximately 9,000 coins, medals and banknotes on display around the British Museum. More than half of these can be found in the HSBC Money Gallery (Gallery 68), while the remainder form part of the permanent displays throughout the Museum.
The prehistoric collections cover Europe, Africa and Asia, the earliest African artefacts being around 2 million years old. Coverage of Europe extends to the present day.
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 covering their various areas of responsibility.
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 and the Benin Bronzes are among the most disputed objects in its collections, and organisations have been formed demanding the return of both sets of artefacts to their native countries of Greece and Nigeria respectively.
The British Museum has refused to return either set, stating 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 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. Nevertheless, it has returned items such as the Tasmanian Ashes after a 20 year long battle with Australia. Critics have particularly argued against the right of the British Museum to own objects which it does not share with the public.
Supporters of the Museum claim that it has provided protection for artefacts that might have otherwise been damaged or destroyed if they had been left in their original environments. While some critics have accepted this, they also argue that the artefacts should now be returned to their countries of origin if there is sufficient expertise and desire there to preserve them.
The British Museum continues to assert that it is an appropriate custodian and has an inalienable right to its disputed artefacts under British law.
Department of the Ancient Near East
Department of Greek and Roman AntiquitiesExhibitions Forgotten Empire Exhibition (October 2005 - January 2006)
a. Sculptures and applied art are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum houses earlier art, non-Western art, prints and drawings, and art of a later date is at Tate Modern. The National Gallery, holds the National Collection of Western European Art, with Tate Britain deposited with British Art from 1500.
b. By the Act of Parliament it received a name - the British Museum. The origin of the name is not known; the word 'British' had some resonance nationally at this period, so soon after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745; it must be assumed that the Museum was christened in this light.
c. The estimated footage of the various libraries as reported to the Trustees has been summarised by Harris (1998), 3,6: Sloane 4,600, Harley 1,700, Cotton 384, Edwards 576, The Royal Library 1,890.
d. This was perhaps rather unfortunate as the title to the house was complicated by the fact that part of the building had been erected on leasehold property (the Crown lease of which ran out in 1771); perhaps that is why George III paid such a modest price (nominally £28,000) for what was to become Buckingham Palace. See Colvin et al. (1976), 134.
e. Understanding of the foundation of the National Gallery is complicated by the fact that there is no documented history of the institution. At first the National Gallery functioned effectively as part of the British Museum, to which the Trustees transferred most of their most important pictures (ex. portraits). Full control was handed over to the National Gallery in 1868, after the Act of Parliament of 1856 established the Gallery as an independent body.
f. Ashmole, the Keeper of the Greek and Roman Antiquities appreciated the original top-lighting of these galleries and removed the Victorian colour scheme, commenting:
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, or practical reasons, to colour all the dadoes a darker colour
g. Ashmole had never liked the Duveen Gallery:
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 whince. 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.
It was not until the 1980s that the installation, of a lighting scheme removed his greatest criticism of the building.
h. The Cairo Museum has 150,000 artefacts, with leading collections reposited at the Musee du Louvre (60,000), Petrie Museum (80,000), The Metropolitan Museum of art (36,000), University of Pennsylvania (42,000), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (40,000), Museo Egizio, Turin (32,500 objects).