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The British Museum, London

The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the beginning it granted free admission to all 'studious and curious persons'. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5,000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today.

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.

The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.

The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759 . It was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’.

With the exception of two World Wars, the Museum has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of 5,000 per year to today's 6 million.

In the early part of the nineteenth century there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), the Townley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816).

In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) prompted the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867).

By 1857, both the quadrangular building and the round Reading Room had been constructed.

To make more room for the increasing collections held by the Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the Natural History Museum.

The Museum was involved in much excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script). In the same way the Rosetta Stone had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script (a symbol-based script).

A key figure during this period was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826–97). Appointed to the Museum in 1851, he was the first person to be responsible for British and medieval material.

Franks expanded the collection in new directions, collecting not only British and medieval antiquities but also prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and objects.

Visitor numbers increased greatly during the nineteenth century. The Museum attracted crowds of all ages and social classes, particularly on public holidays.

Alongside their academic work, curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures, improving the displays and writing popular guides to the collections.

The twentieth century saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide to the Museum was published in 1903 and the first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911.

By the 1970s, there was an active programme of gallery refurbishments and an education service and publishing company had been established. Additional public facilities were provided in a series of building works. These included the Duveen Gallery, built to house the Parthenon Sculptures (1939/62).

In 1973 the library became part of a new organisation, the British Library. This organisation remained at the Museum until 1997, when the books left Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, built in the space vacated by the library, reflects the most recent public expansion at the Museum. At two acres, it is the largest covered public space in Europe. In the centre is the restored Reading Room, while around and beneath it new galleries and an education centre were built.

The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the restoration of the King's Library, the Museum's oldest room and the launch of a new permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.

Great Russell street, 51
Museum's collection
William Blake. The Creator of the universe. The frontispiece to the poem "Europe: a prophecy"
William Blake
1794, 23.4×16.9 cm
Joseph Mallord William Turner. Venice, buildings
Joseph Mallord William Turner
1839, 24.2×30.5 cm
Katsushika Hokusai. Toto Aoi-ga-oka no taki
Katsushika Hokusai
1830, 38×26 cm
Albrecht Durer. School teacher
Albrecht Durer
Odilon Redon. Golden cage
Odilon Redon
1892, 30.1×24.7 cm
Katsushika Hokusai. In the bathroom
Katsushika Hokusai
1800-th , 56.2×42.1 cm
Antoine Watteau. Nude on the sofa
Antoine Watteau
1719, 22.5×22.4 cm
Aubrey Beardsley. Toilet Salome. Illustration for the tragedy "Salome"
Aubrey Beardsley
1893, 22.7×16.2 cm
Edgar Degas. Standing naked over the toilet, the figure from the back
Edgar Degas
1891, 44×31 cm
Albrecht Durer. The pond in the woods
Albrecht Durer
Edgar Degas. Head men and women
Edgar Degas
1880, 7.2×8.1 cm
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Woman sleeping (Hendrickje)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
1655, 24.5×20.3 cm
Katsushika Hokusai. Warbler and Roses
Katsushika Hokusai
1828, 24.1×19 cm
Raphael Santi. Sketch Nude
Raphael Santi
1509, 35×24.2 cm
Albrecht Durer. Christ in crown of thorns
Albrecht Durer
1503, 31×22.1 cm
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. A housewife of the period, Bunsei undergoing treatment cautery. Series "32 the feminine face of everyday life"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
1888, 37.4×25.4 cm
Albrecht Durer. Portrait of a young man
Albrecht Durer
1521, 38×21 cm
Albrecht Durer. Title page. The small passion
Albrecht Durer
1511, 9×12 cm
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. A gust of wind at Shinobugawa. The series "100 aspects of the moon"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
1889, 35.5×24.5 cm
Francisco Goya. Prisoner
Francisco Goya
1799, 21×16 cm