The British Museum


The British Museum

The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the beginning it granted free admission to all 'studious and curious persons'. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5,000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today.

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum. The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.

The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759. It was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), the Townley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816).

In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) prompted the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867). By 1857, both the quadrangular building and the round Reading Room had been constructed.

To make more room for the increasing collections held by the Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the Natural History Museum.

Admission and opening times:

Free, open daily 10.00–17.30

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