The founding of the British Museum can be traced back to one man. Sir Hans Sloane had a lucrative physician practice, serving three monarchs, and was a prodigious collector of rarities. When he died in 1753 at the ripe old age of 92, he left his collection to the British people (not wanting to see it broken up). The initial donation of 71,000 objects included 40,000 books, plant and animal specimens, and various antiquities. King George used the collection to establish the British Museum. It was followed in 1757 by the establishment of the British Library.
The collection was initially housed in the Montagu House, a 17th century mansion. It opened to the public on January 15, 1759. The collection was bolstered by several major acquisitions at the start of the 19th century – the Rosetta stone, the Townley collection of classical sculpture, and the Parthenon sculptures among others. The Montagu House soon reached capacity and was demolished in 1823 to make way for larger facilities. The East Wing was completed in 1827, but the entire building was not completed until 1857. The brainchild of Sir Robert Smirke, the design is a magnificent example of neoclassical architecture.
In 1840, the museum began sponsoring archaeological excavations overseas, and as a result the collection grew exponentially. Today it includes more than 7,000,000 objects. The Rosetta stone, which allowed hieroglyphics to be translated into modern languages, is on display in the Egyptian collection, the best outside Egypt. The museum also houses the Magna Carta. Every corner of civilization is represented here, from Native Americans of the Andes to medieval Europe. Its classical and ancient Mesopotamian collections are also very strong.
The British Museum has the most comprehensive collection of antiquities in the world. If you’re a fan of history and museums, you’ll want to set aside a full day to explore. Or break it up into a couple days to spare your feet. Everything is clearly labeled, and the audio guide is excellent. Short, free tours (30-40 minutes) are available daily for different sections of the museum. Check the website for schedules. The bottom line is the British Museum is one of the best in the world and absolutely not to be missed.
Address: Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG
Telephone: +44 020 7323 8299
Metro: Russell Square (Piccadilly), Tottenham Court Road (Northern, Central)
Hours: Open daily 10:00-17:30 (20:30 on Friday), closed Christmas and New Year’s
Admission: Free admission; charge for some of the temporary exhibitions