British Museum

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The British Museum
Image:British Museum from NE.JPG
Established 1753
Location Great Russell Street, London WC1, England

<tr><th>Visitor figures</th><td>4,500,000 (2005) [1]</td></tr><tr><th>Director</th><td>Neil MacGregor</td></tr>

Nearest tube station(s) Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Goodge Street
Image:British Museum Great Court roof.jpg
The centre of the museum was redeveloped in 2000 to become the Great Court, with a tessellated glass roof by Buro Happold and Foster and Partners surrounding the original Reading Room.

The British Museum in London is one of the world's largest and most important museums of human history and culture. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects from all continents, illustrate and document the story of human culture from its beginning to the present. 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.

It was established in 1753 and was based largely 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 (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1887. Until 1997, when the British Library 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. Its present chairman is Sir John Boyd and its director is Neil MacGregor.


[edit] History

Though principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities today, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". This is reflected in the first bequest by Sir Hans Sloane, comprising some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens, prints by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle and Far East and the Americas. The Foundation Act, passed on 7 June 1753, 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 was the collection of the first and second 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 body of trustees (which until 1963 was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons) decided on Montagu House as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on a site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.

After its foundation the British Museum received several gifts, including the Thomason Library and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays, but had few ancient relics and would have been unrecognisable to visitors of the modern museum. The first notable addition to the collection of antiquities was by Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artifacts to the museum in 1782. In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid. After the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1801 the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculpture and the Rosetta Stone. Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the Towneley collection in 1805 and the Elgin Marbles in 1816.

The collection soon outgrew its surroundings and the situation became urgent with the donation in 1822 of King George III's personal library of 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawings to the museum. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished in 1845 and replaced by a design by the neoclassical architect Sir Robert Smirke.

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 Antonio Panizzi. Under his supervision the British Museum 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. This is where Karl Marx famously carried out much of his research, and wrote some of his most important works.

The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, in 1887. The ethnography collections were until recently housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly; they have now returned to Bloomsbury and the Department of Ethnography has been renamed the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

The temporary exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun, held by the British Museum in 1972, was the most successful in British history, attracting 1,694,117 visitors. 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. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.

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. In 2002 the museum was even closed for a day when its staff protested about proposed redundancies. A few weeks later the theft of a small Greek statue was blamed on lack of security staff.

[edit] Controversy

Image:Elgin Marbles east pediment.jpg
A few of the Parthenon Marbles (popularly known as the Elgin Marbles) from the East Pediment of the Parthenon.

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 Parthenon 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, or any of its other disputed items, 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".[2] The Museum has also argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents it from selling any of its valuable artefacts, even the ones not on display. 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 may 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.

[edit] The Building

Corner of The Great Court, with Easter Island moai.
The current structure replaced Montagu House of 1686.

The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 13.7 metres (45 ft) 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 1823-28, followed by the North Wing in 1833-38, original this housed amongst 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) 1826-31, then Montagu House was demolished from 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing completed in 1846 and the South Wing with its great colonnade, this was initiated in 1843, and completed in 1847 when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public.

In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the Museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854-57; at 42.6 metres (140 ft) 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 1882-84 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.

In 1895 the Trustees purchased the 69 houses surronding the Museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the West, North and East sides of the Museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the Museum stands. 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 of Sir John James Burnet and now house the Asian and Islamic collections.

The Duveen Gallery housing the Elgin Marbles was designed 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.

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 panes of uniquely shaped glass panes. 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.

Currently there are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public although the less popular have restricted opening times.

[edit] The Departments

The museum is currently divided into nine departments:

Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Spanning 10,000 BC to the 12th century AD, these are probably the most comprehensive collections outside of their respective countries of origin.


This department covers all of the continent's history plus the Islamic world to the present day. The collections covering Mesopotamia and the succeeding cultures are the finest outside Iraq.

Coins and Medals

The numismatic collection consists of around 1,000,000 items. Its chronological scope is from the 7th century BC to the present day and its geographical scope is global.

Africa, Oceania and the Americas

The collection mainly consists of 19th- and 20th-century items although the Inca, Aztec, Maya and other early cultures are well represented; collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing.

Greek and Roman Antiquities

The items in the collection cover c. 3200 BC to the 4th century AD and cover all geographical areas these cultures controlled or influenced.

Prehistory and Europe

The prehistoric collections cover Europe, Africa and Asia, the earliest African artefacts being around 2,000,000 years old. Coverage of Europe extends to the present day.

Prints and Drawings

This department covers Western graphic art from the 15th century to the present, containing around 50,000 drawings and 2,000,000 prints.

Conservation, Documentation and Science

This department was founded in 1924. 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 artifact originated and the techniques used in their creation. The deparment also publishes its findings and discoveries.

Learning and Information

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 & 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 indivdual departments have their own separate archives covering their various areas of responsibilty.

[edit] The Collections

Image:British Museum int-250px.jpg
The Egyptian sculpture galleries

Highlights of the collections include:

The notorious Cupboard 55 in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, inaccessible by the public and known as "the Secretum", has a reputation for containing some of the most erotic objects in the British Museum. Though claiming to be from ancient cultures, many of the objects are Victorian fakes and are deemed unfit for public display on grounds of quality, rather than because of their supposed obscenity. In any case, the Museum's attitudes to material previously held to be 'obscene' has now changed, as shown by the Warren Cup.

[edit] Trivia

  • The British Museum is also the setting for Channel 4's Codex.

[edit] Galleries

[edit] Joseph E. Hotung Gallery (Asia)

[edit] Hellenistic galleries

[edit] External links

This audio file was created from an article revision dated 2006-01-14, and may not reflect subsequent edits to the article. (Audio help)


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British Museum

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