The British Museum is one of London’s landmark buildings, home to some of the world’s most precious treasures, birthplace of many great works of history and literature, the inspiration of poets and an eternal source of interest and wonder to countless visitors from all over the world.
The British Museum was originally established to house the collection of more than 71,000 objects, a library and a herbarium gifted to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane. It opened on January 15, 1759 in a 17th century mansion, Montagu House, on the present Bloomsbury site. However, over the next century the rapidly expanding collections outgrew it. The present imposing rectangular structure was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1852. The circular reading room, in the centre of the grand court, was added in 1857. A glass and steel ceiling now covers the court, linking the reading room to the main building and creating new indoor spaces for restaurants, cafes, shops and ticketing.
Over the years the British Museum has acquired one of the largest and best collections of documents, artefacts and antiquities in the world, although some collections, like the British Library and the Natural History section have been re-located and become separtae enmtities. Star among the museum’s antiquities is the Rosetta stone, key to the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the mother of the written word. Its documents include the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels and the manuscripts of Beowolf. It has halls of treasures from Asia, peat-preserved men from pre-historic Britain, fine porcelain from the Royal Courts of Europe and spectacular feather head-dresses and beaded cloaks from North America. It has dark-polished glass-fronted display cases full of fossils and crystals, artefacts and effigies from the Pacific including taonga from Aotearoa-New Zealand; carved waka huia (feather boxes) along with patu and mere (weapons) of bone and of greenstone of a weight, depth and lustre no longer seen.
The museum played a significant role in the lives and work of many political figures and writers. Karl Marx researched Das Kapital in the British library here. Charles Dickens was a member. Wyndham Lewis worked constantly in the reading room during the 1920s. The Bohemian Socialists, including George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, used to meet here. Colin Wilson wrote his first novel, the Outsider here. The British Museum features in the work of many writers including Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventures of Wisteria Lodge) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn were both inspired by objects in the Museum. Finally and best of all, for the sentimental and tender-hearted, romantic Malcolm Bradbury (The History of Man) wooed his girlfriend in the British Museum reading room, with notes left between the pages of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.
Entry to the British Museum is free. It is open daily but times are subject to change. Further Information on the museum times, special exhibitions, collections and history visit www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uks