British Museum in London

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The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.

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 was largely a result of an expanding British colonial footprint and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1887. Some objects in the collection, most notably the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, are the objects of intense controversy and of calls for restitution to their countries of origin.

Until 1997, when the British Library (previously centred on the Round Reading Room) moved to a new site, the British Museum was unique in that it housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee. Since 2002 the director of the museum has been Neil MacGregor.


Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum

Although 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, 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.

Foundation (1753)

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.

Cabinet of curiosities (1753–78)

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.

Indolence and energy (1778–1800)

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.

Growth and change (1800–25)

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 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 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 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 largest building site in Europe (1825–50)

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 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 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.

Collecting from the wider world (1850–75)

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 largest library in the world after the National Library of Paris. Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be {{quote|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. 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 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 mi 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 World Conservation and Exhibition Centre 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. It was granted planning permission in December 2009 and is expected for completion by 2013.

Blythe House in West Kensington is used by the Museum for off-site storage of small and medium-sized artefacts.


Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

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 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. 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 Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
  • The Battlefield Palette, (circa ~3500 to 3000 BC).
  • Limestone statue of a husband and wife (1300 BC)
  • Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the "Younger Memnon" (1250 BC)
  • Colossal red granite statue of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
  • Colossal head from a statue of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
  • Colossal limestone bust of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
  • Saite Sarcophagus of Satsobek
  • Mummy of 'Ginger' which dates to about 3300 BC
  • List of the kings of Egypt from the Temple of Ramesses II (1250 BC)
  • Limestone false door of Ptahshepses (2380 BC)
  • Granite statue of Senwosret III (1850 BC)
  • Mummy of Cleopatra from Thebes (100 AD)
  • Amarna tablets (Collection of 95 out of 382 tablets found, second greatest in the world after the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin (203 tablets) (1350 BC)
  • Obelisk of Pharaoh Nectanebo II (360–343 BC)
  • Gayer-Anderson cat

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

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 3200 BC) 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 Halicarnassus 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:

Athenian Akropolis
The Parthenon Gallery (Elgin Marbles)
  • One of six remaining Caryatids
  • Surviving Column
Athena Nike
  • Surviving Frieze Slabs
Bassae Sculptures
  • Twenty three surviving blocks of the frieze from the interior of the temple are exhibited on an upper level.
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • Two colossal free-standing figures identified as Maussollos and his wife Artemisia.
  • Part of an impressive horse from the chariot group adorning the summit of the Mausoleum
  • The Amazonomachy frieze - A long section of relief frieze showing the battle between Greeks and Amazons
Temple of Artemis at Ephesos
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
Asia Minor
Nereid Monument
  • Partial reconstruction of the Monument, a large and elaborate Lykian tomb from the site of Xanthos in south-west Turkey
  • Payava Tomb from Xanthos in south west Turkey
Wider Museum Collection
  • Material from the Palace of Knossos
  • Portland Vase
  • The Warren Cup
  • Discus-thrower (Discobolos)
  • Towneley Sculptures

Department of the Middle East

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, Turkey, 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: Nimrud: Alabaster bas-reliefs from:

  • The North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
  • Central- Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III
  • South-West Palace of Esarhaddon
  • Palace of Adad-Nirari III
  • South-East Palace ('Burnt Palace')
  • The Nabu Temple (Ezida)
  • The Sharrat-Niphi Temple
  • Temple of Ninurta


  • Pair of Human Headed 'Lamassu' Lions (883-859 BC)
  • Human Headed 'Lamassu' Bull (883-859 BC), sister piece in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Human Headed 'Lamassu' Lion (883-859 BC), sister piece in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Colossal Statue of a Lion (883-859 BC)
  • Rare Head of Human Headed 'Lamassu', recovered from the South-West Palace of Esarhaddon
  • The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC)


Alabaster bas-reliefs from:

  • North-Palace of Ashurbanipal
  • Royal Lion Hunt Scenes
  • The 'Dying Lion', long been acclaimed as a masterpiece
  • The 'Garden Party' Relief
  • South-West Palace of Sennacherib

Royal Library of Ashurbanipal:

  • A large collection of cuneiform tablets of enormous importance approximately 22,000 inscribed clay tablets
  • The Flood Tablet, relating part of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh

  • Alabaster bas-reliefs from the Palace of Sargon II
  • Pair of Human Headed Winged 'Lamassu' Bulls
Wider Collection:
  • Cyrus Cylinder, from Babylon
  • The Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III
  • A fine collection of Urartian bronzes, which now form the core of the Anatolian collection
  • The Oxus Treasure
  • The Standard of Ur
  • The 'Ram in a Thicket'
  • The Royal Game of Ur
  • Queen's Lyre

Department of Prints and Drawings

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.

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 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 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.

Department of Asia

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 most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent in the world, including the celebrated Buddhist limestone reliefs from Amaravati
  • An outstanding collection of Chinese antiquities, paintings, and porcelain, lacquer, bronze, jade, and other applied arts
  • A fine collection of Buddhist paintings from Dunhuang and the Admonitions Scroll by Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi (344–406 AD)
  • The most comprehensive collection of Japanese pre-20th century art in the Western world

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

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 the Benin Bronzes, 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 Americas 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.

Department of Coins and Medals

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. Items from the full collection can be seen by the general public in the Study Room by appointment.

Department of Prehistory and Europe

The Department of Prehistory and Europe is responsible for collections that cover a vast expanse of time and geography. It includes the some of the earliest objects made by humans 2 million years ago; the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day, including the history of Britain under Roman occupation. It also includes the national collection of clocks and watches.

Key highlights of the collections include:

  • The Sutton Hoo treasure
  • The Lewis chessmen
  • The Ringlemere Cup
  • Vindolanda Tablets
  • Lycurgus Cup
  • Royal Gold Cup
  • Holy Thorn Reliquary
  • Franks Casket

The many hoards of treasure include the Mildenhall Treasure, Water Newton Treasure, Hoxne Hoard, and Vale of York Hoard.

Department of Conservation and Scientific Research

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.

Libraries and Archives

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. However, the Paul Hamlyn Library, the central reference library of the British Museum and primary public library, will be permanently closed from 13 August 2011.

British Museum Press

British Museum Press (BMP) is the publishing business of British Museum Company (BMCo), a registered charity established in 1973 to encompass all commercial activity undertaken.

The British Museum Company employs staff to fulfill a number of roles including publishing, wholesale and retail activities, licensing, merchandise development and marketing. Its office is on the northern corner of the museum site at 38 Russell Square, London WC1B 3QQ.


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 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 of Greece, Nigeria and Egypt respectively.

The British Museum has refused to return these artefacts, 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.

The British Museum continues to assert that it is an appropriate custodian and has an inalienable right to its disputed artefacts under British law.

Disputed items in the collection

  • Elgin Marbles - claimed by Greece and backed by UNESCO among others for restitution
  • Benin Bronzes - claimed by Nigeria, 30 pieces sold already by The British Museum privately in the 1960s
  • Ethiopian Tabots - claimed by Ethiopia
  • 4 stolen drawings (Nazi plunder) - Compensation paid to Uri Peled in the amount of £175,000 by the British Museum
  • Achaemenid empire gold and silver artefacts from the Oxus Treasure - claimed by Tajikistan
  • Aboriginal human remains - returned to Tasmania by the British Museum<ref name = "ktixsj"/>
  • Mold's Golden Cape - claimed by Wales
  • Rosetta Stone - claimed by Egypt
  • Some 24,000+ scrolls, manuscripts, paintings, scriptures, and relics from the Mogao Caves, including the Diamond Sutra - claimed by the People's Republic of China

Floor directory

Upper floor

Level 5 Level 4 Level 3
Rooms 92-94 Japan Room 90 Prints and Drawings
Room 91 EXHIBITION: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.
4 November 2010- 6 March 2011
Room 38-9 Clocks and Watches
Room 40 Medieval Europe
Room 41 Europe AD 300-1100
Room 45 The Waddesdon Bequest
Room 46 Europe 1400-1800
Room 47 Europe 1800-1900
Room 48 Europe 1900 to the present
Room 49 Roman Britain
Room 50 Britain and Europe 800 BC-AD 43
Room 51 Ancient Europe 4000-800 BC
Room 52 Ancient Iran
Room 53 Ancient South Arabia
Room 54 Ancient Turkey
Room 55 Mesopotamia 1500-539 BC
Room 56 Mesopotamia 6000 - 1500 BC
Room 57-9 Ancient Levant
Room 68 Money
Room 69 Greek and Roman life
Room 69a EXHIBITION: Ruin and rebellion: uncovering the past at Tutbury Castle
9 July 2009 – 21 March 2010
Room 70 Roman Empire
Room 71 Etruscan world
Room 72 Ancient Cyprus
Room 73 Greeks in Italy

Ground floor

Level 2 Level 1 Level 0
Room 67 Korea
Room 95 Chinese ceramics
Room 33 China, India, South Asia and Southeast Asia
Room 33a Amaravati
Room 1 Enlightenment
Room 2 The Changing Museum
Room 3 EXHIBITION: The Asahi Shimbun Displays: Objects in focus
Room 4 Egyptian sculpture
Room 6 Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates
Rooms 7-8 Assyria: Nimrud
Room 9 Assyria: Nineveh
Room 10 Assyria: Lion hunts
Room 11 Cycladic Islands
Room 12 Greece: Minoans and Mycenaeans
Room 13 Greece 1050-520 BC
Room 14 Greek vases
Room 15 Athens and Lycia
Room 16 Greece: Bassae Sculptures
Room 17 Nereid Monument
Room 18 Greece: Parthenon
Room 19 Greece: Athens
Room 20 Greeks and Lycians 400-325 BC
Room 21 Mausoleum of Kalikarnassos
Room 22 The world of Alexander
Room 23 Greek and Roman sculpture
Room 24 Living and Dying
Stairs down to Room 25 Africa
Room 26 North America
Room 27 Mexico
Room 33b Chinese jade

Lower floor

Level -1 Level -2
Room 25 and Clore Education Centre only
Ford Centre for Young Visitors Clore Education Centre
Room 25 Africa
Room 77 Greek and Roman architecture
Room 78 Classical Inscriptions
Room 82 Early Ephesus
Room 83-4 Roman sculpture
Room 85 Roman portraits

Transport connections

Service Station/Stop Lines/Routes served Distance
from British Museum
London Buses British Museum 7
Great Russell Street 10, 14, 24, 29, 73, 134, 390 0.1 mile walk
Museum Street 1, 8, 19, 25, 38, 55, 98, 242 0.1 mile walk
Tottenham Court Road Station 14, 24, 29, 134 0.3 mile walk
London Underground Tottenham Court Road 0.3 mile walk
0.3 mile walk
Goodge Street 0.5 mile walk


Floor Plans
Museum Galleries

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Department of the Ancient Near East

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities


Forgotten Empire Exhibition (October 2005 - January 2006)

See also

  • A History of the World in 100 Objects
  • The British Museum Friends


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, for 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 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.

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 Musée 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).

Further reading

  • Anderson, Robert (2005). The Great Court and the British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Arrowsmith, Rupert Richard. Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant Garde. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 103–164. .
  • Arrowsmith, Rupert Richard. "The Transcultural Roots of Modernism: Imagist Poetry, Japanese Visual Culture, and the Western Museum System", Modernism/modernity Volume 18, Number 1, January 2011, pp. 27–42. ISSN: 1071-6068.
  • Caygill, Marjorie (2006). The British Museum: 250 Years. London: The British Museum Press
  • Caygill, Marjorie (2002). The Story of the British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Cook, B. F. (2005). The Elgin Marbles. London: The British Museum Press
  • Esdaile, Arundell (1946) '. London: Allen & Unwin
  • Jenkins, Ian (2006). Greek Architecture and its Sculpture in The British Museum. London: The British Museum Press
  • Francis, Frank, ed. (1971) Treasures of the British Museum. London: Thames & Hudson (rev. ed., 1975)t*Moser, Stephanie (2006). Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at The British Museum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
  • Reade, Julian (2004). Assyrian Sculpture. London: The British Museum Press
  • Reeve, John (2003). The British Museum: Visitor's Guide. London: The British Museum Press
  • Wilson, David M. (2002). The British Museum: a history. London: The British Museum Press

External links