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British Museum

Learn about the historic and treasure-filled British Museum.

London's British Museum contains one of the world's most comprehensive collections. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
London's British Museum contains one of the world's most comprehensive collections.

Established in 1753 by an Act of Parliament, the British Museum contains one of the most comprehensive and diverse collections in the world. Situated in a quadrangular building in London, England, the museum contains millions of priceless items from different countries and eras. With pieces from Greece, the Middle East and ancient Egypt, the British Museum illustrates and preserves the story of human culture from its beginning to the present.

History of the British Museum

After his death. Sir Hans Sloane left his collection of about 71,000 artifacts, his library and his herbarium to King George II in exchange for a monetary amount that the king would give to Sloane's family. In 1753, Parliament established the British Museum based on this collection and a collection of manuscripts from Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, an English antiquarian. The combined collection went on display in the Montagu House and opened to the public in 1759.

By the mid-1800s, however, the library's collection had grown significantly and more room was needed to store it. Another building was constructed on the same site -- the same building that is the British Museum today. This large structure was designed by Sir Robert Smirke in Greek Revival Style from the period between 1823 and 1852.

Several alterations and additions have taken place since then. The popular reading room was constructed in the 1850s. In 1881, the natural history collection was transferred to South Kensington to become the National History Museum. Another act by Parliament passed in 1973 established the British Museum's library as the British Library, but at the time, it remained in the same building. In 1997, the library was moved to a larger facility in St. Pancras, London, to make room for new collections. The space where the library was once housed was converted to The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which opened to the public in 2000.

Departments within the British Museum

The vast collections of the British Museum are housed in different departments including the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities and the Department of Prints and Drawings, among others.

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

The British Museum's collection of Egyptian artifacts is second in size only to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan includes items from almost every important site in ancient Egypt and Sudan, which makes it especially significant. The collection includes items illustrating the cultures on the Nile Valley from the Predynastic Neolithic Period (c. 10,000 BC) to the Coptic Christian era (12th century AD). The timespan of the collection is estimated to be more than 11,000 years. Key highlights include the Rosetta Stone, the colossal bust of Ramesses II and the colossal head of Amenhotep III.

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Containing over 100,000 artifacts, this collection provides much insight about the classical world. The artifacts date back to the Greek Bronze Age and illustrate history until the time of Roman Emperor Constantine I. The cultures of the Minoan, Cycladic and Mycenaean are featured here. The Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities also contains the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, important pieces from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos and some elements from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos.

Department of the Middle East

Formerly known as the Department of Ancient Near East, this department was renamed because curators included collections from the Department of Asia. Visitors can see more than 300,000 artifacts in the Department of the Middle East. The British Museum has the largest collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts outside of Iraq. Assyrian, Sumerians and Babylonian antiquities are on display here.

Department of Prints and Drawings

Founded in 1808, the collection in the Department of Prints and Drawings has grown to achieve international recognition. With drawings from the 14th century to the present, the collection is one of the largest in the world. On display are masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt and Drer.

How to Help the British Museum

Supporters can help the British Museum by becoming members. For a fee, members enjoy free admission to all museum exhibitions and receive the British Museum Magazine three times a year. Supporters can also make donations to the library through the British Museum Friends. Donations typically fund the museum's research program, which strives to discover more about the museum's collections. Those who live near the museum can volunteer at the museum. Many volunteers work in the galleries informing the public about the collections. Individuals or organizations interested in helping the museum sustain, maintain and expand its collection should go to the official Web site of the British Museum.

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