The British Museum


Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG


020-7323 8299



Opening times:

Exhibitions open daily 10:00–17:30, Fri until 20:30

How to get there:

Tube: Holborn/Tottenham Court Road/Russell Square

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Restaurant, café and shops

Founded in 1753, the British Museum is the oldest secular public museum in the world. Its vast collection spans over two million years of the world’s cultural history and contains many objects of outstanding international importance. As the mother of other, now independent, national institutions in London (The Natural History Museum and The British Library), the British Museum occupies a position of historical pre-eminence.


History of the Museum

At the core of the collection is that of Sir Hans Sloane (1650–1753), botanist and scientist, President of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal Society. His terracotta bust by Rysbrack (1736) is placed to the right of the main entrance. In his will Sloane offered for sale to the Crown, for £20,000, his enormous and renowned collection of ‘curiosities’: botanical and natural history specimens, coins and medals, shells, paintings, books and manuscripts, the accumulations of a man of the scientific revolution intent on discovering and ordering the products of God’s creation. A state lottery raised funds for its purchase together with the important manuscript collection of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661–1724). Instead of a purpose-built museum these collections, joined by the Cottonian manuscripts which had been left to the nation in 1700, were displayed in Montagu House, a once-splendid post-1686 mansion with highly significant Baroque painted interiors. It was here that early visitors, including the young Mozart in 1765 who composed a motet, ‘God is our refuge’, dedicated to the museum, came to marvel. Cases of stuffed animals, fish, fossils and minerals, the museum’s first Egyptian mummy and classical antiquities were incongruously placed amid late 17th-century grandeur. Watercolours exist of the majestic grand staircase, with Charles de la Fosse’s painted mythological scene on the ceiling, rising to meet three giant stuffed giraffes on the landing.

A wave of major acquisitions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries necessitated the provision of new accommodation. In 1772 the great Greek vase collection of Sir William Hamilton (diplomat and archaeologist, and husband of Nelson’s lover Emma) was acquired; in 1802 came the first significant haul of Egyptian antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone, followed in 1805 by the Townley Marbles. Too heavy for the delicate floors of Montagu House, a new adjoining Townley Gallery was built to accommodate these additions. But then, in 1814, came the purchase of the Phigaleian Marbles, swiftly followed in 1816 by the Elgin Marbles, the most significant acquisition in the museum’s history. A temporary structure of brick and wood was erected in the garden to house them, and it was here that the romantic Keats felt a ‘dizzy pain’ as he gazed upon ‘these mighty things’.


The Building

Between 1820 and 1823 Sir Robert Smirke produced plans for a vast new building. Greek-revivalist in style, austere and dignified, it reflected the purity and rationalism of ancient Greece so admired by the English Neoclassicists. It was also a fitting receptacle for the Elgin Marbles, regarded as the very pinnacle of ancient Greek art. The building was conceived as a large quadrangle, with an imposing Ionic colonnaded entrance front and massive portico. It was built wing by wing, parts of Montagu House coming down as the new edifice went up. Construction spanned many years, beginning with the east wing, which on the ground floor housed George III’s magnificent library, donated by George IV. The north wing (1833–38) contained mainly books, with mineralogy and geology above. The west wing, constructed for the Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, where they still are today, was built in stages and has undergone several building campaigns, mainly in the early 1850s to accommodate the Assyrian antiquities, excavated from Nimrud and Nineveh, which began to arrive in the 1840s, to the amazement of Victorian London. The colonnaded south front was largely complete by 1847 when the Front Hall, with its Grecian Doric columns and grand staircase with ornamental balustrade and carved vases opened to the public.

Richard Westmacott’s frieze of sculptures, The Progress of Civilisation, showing man’s ‘emergence from a rude state’ to his embracement of the arts and sciences, was hoisted into place in the pediment above the entrance in 1851. But by then the original ideal of a ‘universal’ museum containing all branches of learning under one roof was understood to be a physical impossibility. The pictures, the nucleus of the National Gallery, had already been diverted to Trafalgar Square even before the first floor of the west wing, which was to have housed them, was built. In the 1880s the natural history collections moved to South Kensington, where they became the Natural History Museum, freeing up much space, but it was only in 1998, with the removal of the British Library to St Pancras, that the museum could expand into large areas previously occupied by books. Even so, these spaces, as significant, listed interiors, have restricted use.

Sydney Smirke’s inspiring, lofty and echoing Round Reading Room (1854–57), built in the centre of his brother Robert Smirke’s quadrangle, is only 2ft smaller than the Pantheon in Rome. Under its dome many famous historical and modern-day scholars have worked, but the books are now gone. It retains its layout of reading desks, however, and is now the museum’s information centre, where the collections can be viewed online. The quadrangle itself, now the Great Court (opened 2000), has been transformed by Norman Foster’s vast glass roof which spans the entire space (the size of Hanover Square). From the Great Court access to all sections of the museum is possible. The Reading Room, encased by a shell of shops, a café and, on the first floor, a restaurant, sits in the centre while the façades of Smirke’s quadrangle (one portico being a modern construction—controversially, in the wrong kind of stone), hidden from view practically since built, can now be enjoyed. Below the Great Court new display and exhibition galleries have been constructed, the first major additions to the museum’s space for many decades.


The Collection


It is not possible to view the museum’s vast collections in a single visit, nor to give a comprehensive account of them. Below, beginning with the Enlightenment gallery and then in order of administrative department, is an outline of the museum’s highlights.


Enlightenment (Room 1)

In celebration of the British Museum’s 250th anniversary, the Enlightenment Gallery opened in 2003 in the restored King’s Library, Smirke’s magnificent Greek-revival space built to receive George III’s library donated to the museum by George IV in 1823. The most imposing Neoclassical interior in London, it is 300ft long and decorated with an austere magnificence, with vast Corinthian columns of Aberdeen granite and a rich yet restrained plasterwork ceiling. This severe grandeur, inspired by the rationalism of ancient Greek civilisation, was a fitting environment to house a library, an encyclopaedia of knowledge which the British Museum itself aimed to be. Following the removal of the King’s Library to the new British Library at St Pancras, the space has now been filled with a permanent exhibition looking at the age of the Enlightenment, the era of expanding knowledge, pioneering discovery and rational observation in which the museum was founded. The displays contain objects from all aspects of the museum’s collections, making it an ideal introduction to the museum as a whole. The development of methods for ordering and understanding man’s burgeoning knowledge of the world is explored, beginning with 18th-century visitors to Montagu House, who encountered objects from all quarters of the globe placed together in the wonderfully titled Department of Natural and Artificial Productions, to the establishment of modern classification systems. The displays include loans from the Natural History Museum of items from Sloane’s botanical and zoological collections, including volumes from his Herbarium and specimen trays of, for example, seeds, fruits, bark and roots.


Greek & Roman Antiquities (Rooms 11–23, 69–73, 77–85)

The Museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities is one of the finest in the world, ranging from the Bronze Age civilisations of the Cyclades and Minoan Crete to the late Roman Empire.

Although classical antiquities were a part of the museum’s collection from the start, the first major acquisition was the 1772 purchase of Sir William Hamilton’s Greek (then known as Etruscan) vase collection, a large and valuable group mainly from Southern Italy. Over the decades the museum has added to the collection considerably, and it is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. Among the many items of note is the c. 580 bc black-figured Sophilos bowl and stand, the first signed Greek vase known (Room 13); and the famous c. 540 bc amphora by Exekias, one of the finest draughtsmen of antiquity (also Room 13). The scene on the vase shows a helmeted Achilles killing Penthesilea, whose visor is pushed back to reveal her face in an attitude of vulnerability. In 1805 the Greek vases were joined by another major acquisition, the Townley Marbles (Room 84; in the basement), a group of mainly Roman sculptures which Charles Townley began collecting in 1768 when in Rome on the Grand Tour. Interest in Classical sculpture was then at its zenith, fuelled by dealers who excavated sites such as Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and restorers who worked alongside them. During his lifetime Townley’s collection was displayed in his cluttered house in Park Street, Westminster, where it became a celebrated attraction visited by scholars and connoisseurs. Among the highlights was the famous Discobolus, actually a Roman copy of a Greek bronze, from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (displayed on the main stairs); the bust of ‘Clytie’, Townley’s favourite sculpture, which perhaps represents Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, probably recut in the 18th century; and the c. 2nd-century ad graceful pair of greyhounds, again restored in the 18th century.

The Townley collection had an immense impact on 18th-century British taste, but its reputation was eclipsed by the arrival in the 19th century of several examples of Greek sculpture which cemented in people’s minds the primacy of ancient Greek art and civilisation over Roman. First to arrive, in 1814, were the Phigaleian Marbles (Room 16), in fact slabs from the sculpted frieze of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae, in southwest Arcadia, showing Hercules and the Greeks in battle against the Amazons in brutal, fast-moving scenes. The arrival which caused the greatest stir was, however, that of the Elgin Marbles (Room 18), acquired in 1816. Removed by Lord Elgin from the 5th-century bc Temple of Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, Athens, the construction of which was overseen by the great sculptor Pheidias, these sculptures have long been admired as the greatest achievement of Greek art. In the 19th century they became the benchmark against which all art was measured. The ‘marbles’ include sculptures from the east pediment, originally a rhythmic succession of figurative groups illustrating the birth of Athena; slabs from the sculpted frieze showing the Panathenaic procession held to celebrate the birthday of Athena, carved with amazing skill and finesse; and sculpted panels once placed above the colonnade showing with great vividness the fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Also removed by Elgin was the caryatid from the south porch of the Erechtheion, on the north side of the Acropolis. Although removed with full permission, and with the preservation of the marbles from the careless disregard of the Ottoman authorities in mind, even in the early 19th century Elgin was accused of robbery and plunder (by Byron). Visitors today cannot be unconscious of the arguments for the marbles’ repatriation.

In the 1840s and 50s further great examples of Greek sculpture arrived including, in 1844, pieces from the great 4th-century bc Nereid Monument (Room 17), the most spectacular of those discovered in Xanthos (in modern Turkey) by Charles Fellows. Its free-standing figures have finely carved swirling folds of drapery. In 1845 slabs from the 4th-century bc Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Room 21), the tomb of Mausolus, King of Caria, and one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, arrived at the museum. In 1857 Charles Newton, a museum employee, became Vice-Consul in Mytilene (Lesbos), with the additional brief of collecting antiquities for the museum, and in 1857 he conducted an excavation of the site (at Bodrum, in modern Turkey), where work continued in the 1860s. From the former great white marble stepped pyramidal structure which dominated the town, a vast lion was recovered; two colossal statues, once identified as Mausolus himself and Artemisia his sister-wife; and the head of one of the huge marble chariot horses from the mausoleum’s summit. Another of the Seven Wonders, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, from where St Paul preached to the Ephesians, is represented by a vast sculpted column drum (Room 22) discovered by John Turtle Wood in 1869.

Further rooms in the basement and on the first floor have important collections of smaller artefacts, including ancient jewellery, bronzes, silver and glass. The latter collection includes the well known Portland Vase (Room 70). Probably Roman (c. 5–25 ad), it was brought to England by Sir William Hamilton. It is a technical masterpiece of cobalt blue and white cameo glass decorated with a figurative frieze, famously copied by Josiah Wedgwood. In 1845 the vase was smashed into a hundred pieces by a visitor, but successfully repaired.


Ancient Egypt & Sudan (Rooms 4 & 61–66)

The museum’s famous Egyptian and Sudanese collection covers the cultures of the Nile Valley from the Neolithic age (c. 10th century bc) through the time of the Pharaohs to Coptic times (12th century ad). As well as massive pieces of Egyptian temple architecture, glorifying the power of kings and the worship of deities, the museum has an internationally important collection of papyri, funerary goods and household objects illustrative of the daily lives of the region’s inhabitants.

Although Sloane’s foundation collection had included some Egyptian material, which was supplemented by objects from the Lethieullier collection (including the museum’s first mummy), it was not until 1802 that major items, ceded to the British under the terms of the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria, began to arrive. First and foremost among these was the famous Rosetta Stone (Room 4), an object of unparalleled importance in the history of Egyptology. Originally discovered by French scholars who accompanied Napoleon’s expeditionary force to Egypt, the stone, bearing an inscription in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic Egyptian and Greek—held the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. The code was finally cracked by the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion in 1822, thereby enabling the translation of texts and inscriptions which opened the door to the hitherto mysterious ‘lost’ civilisation of ancient Egypt.

The first great piece of Egyptian sculpture to arrive was the bust of Rameses II (Room 4), ‘the Younger Memnon’, a colossal seven-ton sculpture (actually only the head) carved from a single block of granite, excavated from the king’s vast mortuary temple, the Rameseum, in Thebes. Presented to the museum in 1817 by Henry Salt, British Consul-General in Cairo, and Jean Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, it had been physically removed from its site by Giovanni Belzoni, a former strongman and hydraulic engineer, whose team had taken 12 days to haul it to the river’s edge. Salt and Belzoni continued to excavate in and around Thebes, unearthing great discoveries at the temple of Karnak and the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, from whence came the colossal head of Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty, c. 1350 bc), an excellent piece of sculpture (displayed in the Great Court) showing the king wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. Belzoni’s excavations, although officially sanctioned, were not rigorously recorded archaeological digs. By the end of the 19th century, strict antiquities legislation had come into force, and major finds remained in Egypt. It was during this pioneering period, however, that the museum acquired significant pieces of sculpture, mainly as the beneficiary of the Egypt Exploration Fund, led by Flinders Petrie, whose finds from controlled digs were officially distributed. The three remarkable 12th-Dynasty (c. 1850 bc) granite sculptures of Senwosret III (on loan at the time of writing), masterpieces of Middle Kingdom art from Deir el-Bahari, Thebes, came from this source. Senwosret’s realistic furrowed brow, expressive of the heavy burden of kingship, is far removed from other idealised images of Egyptian kings.

The upstairs galleries house the museum’s renowned collection of papyri, mummies, tomb sculpture and funerary objects, acquired mainly under Samuel Birch, the museum’s great Egyptologist appointed in 1836, and his successor Ernest Wallis Budge, who was interested in ancient texts and made important purchases from dealers in Egypt. Their scholarly and collecting activities established the museum as a major centre for Egyptology. Highlights include Middle Kingdom papyri (the golden age of Egyptian literature), and the Rameseum Dramatic Papyrus (Room 65) acquired in 1929. The mummies and their elaborate cases, including the Roman-period mummy case of Artemidorus (Room 62), a young man from Hawara, are displayed alongside X-rays and CAT scans, revealing amulets, scarabs and other sacred objects beneath the wrappings. Other grave goods such as jewellery, canopic jars and mummified animals are on show. The large collection of Books of the Dead, which offered spells to aid the dead in their passage through the underworld, includes the Book of the Dead of Any (Room 63), arguably the best illustrated papyrus in existence. The museum’s most striking piece of tomb painting is the Fowling in the Marshes (pictured above) a fragment from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes (18th Dynasty c. 1350 bc), collected by Salt, showing Nebamun and his wife Hatshepsut in recreation in the afterlife.


Ancient Near East (Rooms 6–10 & 51–59)

The museum’s material from the ancient civilisations of the Near East, including art and artefacts from Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant, Anatolia and Arabia, from the Neolithic period to the arrival of Islam in the 7th century ad, has at its heart one of the finest collections of Assyrian sculpture in the world.

The museum’s early collection included sculptures from Persepolis, which were joined, in 1824, by the collection of Claudius James Rich (d. 1820), the East India Company’s Representative in Baghdad, who, as well as identifying the site of ancient Babylon in 1811, amassed an important collection of cuneiform scripts and cylinder seals. It was not until the great excavations of Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–94), however, that eyes were opened to the new, truly magnificent civilisation of the Assyrians. The sculptures arriving in London from the 1840s from Nimrud and Nineveh caused a sensation. They included the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (Nimrud 858–24 bc; Room 6) with its carved representation of Jehu paying tribute to the king, a tantalising reference to a Biblical figure; from the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II a colossal human-headed winged lion (883–59 bc; Room 6) which guarded the entrance to the throne room; and carved slabs which lined the walls of the Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (Room 7). Two further colossal gateway figures, human-headed winged bulls (710–05 bc), each weighing 16 tons, arrived in 1849, bought from the French excavations of Sargon II’s citadel at Khorsabad (Room 10). Layard’s local assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, continued to excavate on behalf of the museum, sending back astonishing discoveries from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Nineveh, which he unearthed in 1852–54. From this richly decorated palace came the famous Royal Lion Hunt slabs, in particular the Dying Lion (Room 55), where the injured and bleeding animal is carved with incredible skill and observation; and thousands of cuneiform tablets from the great Royal Library, the main source for present day knowledge of the literature, culture and lives of these people. The vast collection of cuneiform tablets and the pioneering work of Colonel Rawlinson in deciphering the cuneiform script established the museum as the centre for cuneiform studies. The discovery in 1872 that one of the tablets (the Flood Tablet, 7th century bc; Room 55) contained a Babylonian version of the Biblical deluge riveted Victorian minds.

Attracted by its impressive ziggurat, Leonard Woolley’s 12-year excavation of the ancient Sumerian town of Ur yielded extraordinarily rich discoveries. From the ‘Great Death Pit’, which Woolley decided was a royal cemetery, where the dead were accompanied to their graves by as many as 60 attendants each, came the ‘Ram in a Thicket’ (2600–2400 bc; Room 56), a sculpture of a goat covered in gold leaf with horns and fleece of lapis lazuli reaching up to nibble leaves from a bush; the Standard of Ur, with mosaic figurative decoration of shell, limestone and lapis lazuli, representing the Sumerian army with chariots and spears trampling the enemy, and a procession of goods being borne to a banquet; and the Royal Game of Ur (Room 56), an early example of the ‘game of twenty squares’. In the 1930s impressive Phoenician ivory carvings (Room 57), probably from pieces of furniture, were excavated by Sir Max Mallowan (husband of the detective writer Agatha Christie) at Nimrud.

Other highlights from the collection include important Hittite discoveries (Room 54) from Carchemish, on the Turkish-Syrian border, excavated in 1911–14 and 1920 (one of the excavators being T.E. Lawrence); the incredible Oxus Treasure (Room 52), a magnificent collection of gold and silver from the 4th–5th centuries bc Achaemenid period, found on the north bank of the River Oxus in 1877–80; and a collection of funerary sculptures, with detailed jewellery, dress and hair, from the great city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, which arrived at the museum in the 1880s.


Prehistory & Europe (Rooms 36–48 & 49–50)

The department spans a vast expanse of time with objects, including early flint implements, jewellery and funerary offerings, charting the cultural evolution of man from the Palaeolithic and Neolithic stone age eras; through the Bronze and Iron Ages and Celtic Europe; to Roman Britain and the Christian cultures of Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Europe. Collecting in these areas was accidental and sluggish until the mid-19th-century appointment of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (d. 1897), whose dedication to British antiquities, and personal gifts to the museum inspired a flow of donations of prehistoric and later objects. Two items of outstanding importance came from Franks: the c. 700 ad Northumbrian ‘Franks Casket’, with intricate whalebone carving (in the Study Collection); and the incomparable Royal Gold Cup (Room 42), decorated in coloured enamels with scenes of the life of St Agnes, given in 1391 to Charles VI of France by the great patron the Duc de Berry.

When other departments found their acquisition of archaeological material restricted by new antiquities legislation, major British finds of incredible importance found their natural home at the British Museum. Archaeological discovery and the ancient law of Treasure Trove, refined by the Treasure Act (1996), have benefited the collection enormously. Buried ‘treasure’, defined as any object containing 10% silver or gold, over 300 years old and placed in the ground with the intention of retrieval, is administered by the museum. Through this route came the 12th-century Lewis Chessmen (Room 42), discovered in 1831 in a stone chamber under a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides; the exceptional Mildenhall Treasure (on loan at the time of writing), a hoard of 34 pieces of superb Roman silver tableware of brilliant craftsmanship ploughed up in a field in Suffolk in the 1940s; the great gold Snettisham Torc (Room 50), a magnificent 1st-century bc example of early Iron Age British craftsmanship; and the Water Newton treasure (Room 49), the earliest known pieces of Christian silver from the Roman Empire, discovered with a metal detector in 1975.

Between 1879 and 1905 a stream of material was given to the museum by Canon Williams Greenwell, all finds from his energetic excavations of prehistoric barrows. One of the greatest archaeological excavations in Britain, however, was the great 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk (Room 41), possibly the grave of Raedwald, King of East Anglia. Discovered in 1939 under windswept heathland, the astonishing rich treasure of silver and gold set with garnets, including a perfectly preserved and intricate gold buckle, and a finely crafted but sinister helmet, was given to the museum by the landowner, Mrs Pretty. Important items from Roman Britain include the tombstone of Julius Classicianus, Procurator of Britain (Room 49), an exceptionally important historical document discovered in two stages, in 1852 and 1935, when construction work was being carried out near Tower Hill, London; and the 4th-century Hinton Mary mosaic pavement (also Room 49), at its centre the earliest representation of Christ found in Britain, discovered on the site of a Roman villa in Dorset in 1963. In 1984 the extraordinarily well preserved Lindow Man (Room 50) was discovered, a 1st-century ad young man of twenty-five who had been bludgeoned, garrotted and then had his throat cut, probably in a Druidic sacrifice.

Later decorative art items include those from the important Waddesdon Bequest of 1898 (Room 45), including the 1400–10 ‘Holy Thorn Reliquary’; an important collection of porcelain; and one of the world’s finest horological collections (Room 44), many of the clocks and watches on display gently ticking and striking and chiming the hour (not all at the same time).


Ethnography (Rooms 25 & 26–27)

Sloane’s foundation collection contained some ethnographic items but it was not a seriously recognised collecting category until the 1860s. Until then acquisitions were haphazard and accidental. Some material gathered on Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery to the South Pacific and northwest coast of America came to the museum, partly through the efforts of Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks, who both worked for the museum (Banks was a trustee) and had been part of Cook’s retinue of scientific recorders. In 1775 the Otaheite (South Seas) Room opened at Montagu House but, although it was an immensely popular attraction, there was not much dedication to its contents, large parts of which were casually dispersed over the years. The museum still has the great ceremonial cloak of feathers and mother of pearl, probably that presented to Cook in Tahiti in 1774, along with other Polynesian, Maori and American material.

Consisting of objects reflecting the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the bulk of what makes up the present ethnographic collection came to the museum in the 19th and 20th centuries. Having returned from the Museum of Mankind in 1997, the collection is now displayed in three galleries on the main floor and in the new Africa Galleries below the Great Court. The Wellcome Trust Gallery (Room 24), occupying the old North Library, is where a proposed series of long-term exhibitions will run (currently ‘Living and Dying’). It is here, for the moment, that Hoa Hakananai’a can be found, the museum’s monumental Easter Island statue brought back by the crew of HMS Topaze from its surveying expedition of 1868. These great human figures, known as moai, part of the island’s statue cult, which flourished up until the 17th century, originally stood upright on platforms, surveying the remote island scenery from under their heavy brows.

In 1858 Sir Stamford Raffles’ Indonesian collection was presented to the museum, followed in 1865 by that of Henry Christy (whose family textile firm introduced the modern-day towel to the western world, based on a piece of Turkish towelling Christy collected). The greatest treasures from this were the three pieces of Mixtec-Aztec turquoise mosaic (Room 27) possibly part of the tribute given by Emperor Moctezuma II to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519. The museum now has nine of these outstanding ritual and ceremonial objects: masks, animals, a two-headed serpent, carved in wood with the turquoise pieces set in resin. The decorated human skull represents the powerful god Tezcatlipoca.

The Africa Galleries (Room 25; basement) include the 12th–14th-century bronze head of a Yoruba ruler, probably Oni, king of Ife on the River Niger, Ife culture being one of the highest achievements of African art; sophisticated brass plaques from Benin, produced for the Oba rulers in the 16th century; and a collection of goldwork collected in 1817 by Thomas Boldwich on a journey to the Asante kingdom (present day Ghana) on behalf of the African Company of Merchants. Asante’s great wealth was based on its vast gold deposits: at Kumasi, Boldwich noted the sun glinting off the massy gold ornaments of the people.


Prints & Drawings (Room 90)

On the top floor of the Edward VII block, most easily approached from the museum’s north entrance on Montague Place, but also possible via the Great Court, is the national collection of Western prints and drawings, one of the top three collections of its type in the world, with over 50,000 drawings and two million prints. At its heart are the drawings collected by Sloane, including John White’s 16th-century views of the Roanoke colony; a group of drawings by the 17th-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar; and, most importantly, volumes of Dürer’s watercolours and drawings which are among the museum’s most important possessions.

Sloane’s items were joined in 1769 by William Fawkener’s collection of prints and drawings, including important Italian works, and in 1799 by the major bequest to the museum of the collection of the Rev. Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, a trustee since 1784 and a shy eccentric who had collected, among many other things, important works by Holbein, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Rubens. The department did not exist independently, nor was its collection properly inventoried, which allowed the shady dealer Robert Dighton to thieve from the collection, from 1795, many of the Cracherode items, hiding them beneath his coat or in his pocket, desiring in particular works by Rembrandt. Dighton was discovered, several items recovered, and in 1808 the department was formally formed and its own keeper appointed in 1836. In the 1820s–60s the department grew enormously, and was further enhanced in 1895 by the arrival of the Malcolm collection of over 1,000 Old Master drawings of high quality. Among the highlights of the collection today, as well as the important historical, satirical and topographical prints, the vast collection of portrait mezzotints, and drawings and prints after Italian, German and Netherlandish artists, are the fine collection of Dürer drawings (138 in total) and an almost complete collection of his engravings; over 90 works by Michelangelo, including studies for great commissions such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling; 80 sheets of sketches and drawings by Rembrandt, as well as a collection of his etchings; a large body of excellent works by Rubens; and British watercolours including views made in Rome by Francis Towne, which he bequeathed in 1816, and works by John Sell Cotman. There are also works by Thomas Girtin, a young artist of great promise, recognised as a genius by Turner. He died before he was thirty. Added to this is an important collection of printed material such as trade and visiting cards and playing cards from the collection of Sarah Sophia Banks, sister of the museum’s trustee Joseph Banks.

The collection is made available through a programme of temporary exhibitions in a room alongside the Print Room, which is open for research by appointment. Michelangelo’s large cartoon in black chalk, Epifania (c. 1550–53), and Dürer’s vast woodcut The Triumphal Arch (1515), one of the largest prints ever produced, are usually on display.


Coins & Medals (Rooms 41, 46, 49, 68)

Since its foundation in 1753 the British Museum has had a fine numismatic collection, which now numbers over a million objects spanning the history of coinage from its beginnings in the 7th century bc to the present day. As well as coins, the museum also has a collection of paper money, from a 14th-century Chinese banknote to the modern euro; and an exceptional collection of commemorative medals dating from the Italian Renaissance to the present. Sloane owned around 20,000 coins and medals, many purchased from the collection of his friend William Courten, and others came from the foundation collections of Sir Robert Cotton. Numerous large numismatic acquisitions were made in the 18th and 19th centuries including those in the large Cracherode bequest of 1799; Richard Payne Knight’s collection of over 5,000 items, bequeathed in 1824; and the royal collection of George III in the same year. William Marsden’s gift of 1834 was the foundation of the Oriental collection. From the early 19th century it became an aim to have a representative series of British material, greatly aided by the 1859–60 purchase of Edward Hawkins’ collection of historic commemorative medals, over 4,500 items, larger by far than the museum’s own collection at the time. The medallic collection today begins with excellent cast bronze medals by Pisanello (Room 46) designed for the Este and Gonzaga families of Ferrara and Mantua. As well as the British medals there are also important German Renaissance and Netherlandish examples and French medals produced for Louis XIV of France, with highly skilled Baroque allegorical reverses. Over the years the department has also been a Treasure Trove beneficiary (e.g. the Cuerdale Hoard of Viking-Age silver, Room 41; and the Hoxne Hoard of late Roman coins—Room 49—comprising over 15,000 silver coins and over 500 of gold) and has the responsibility of assessing today’s treasure finds of coins. As well as in the Money Gallery (Room 68), the collection is displayed through a series of frequently changing exhibitions held in a small space on the first floor, outside the department’s fearsome metal security door.


Asia (Rooms 33–34, 67 & 91–94)

The large department covering the material remains of the Asian continent from Neolithic times to the present has as its main focus the cultures of India, Islam, China and Japan and comprises the world’s most comprehensive collection of sculpture from the Indian subcontinent; the best collection of Islamic pottery outside the Middle East; an outstanding collection of Chinese antiquities, including paintings, porcelain, lacquer and jade; the most important collection of Korean art in Europe; and, among the Japanese netsuke, samurai swords and ceramics, including tea ceremony ware, the finest collection of Japanese paintings and prints in the West.

Sloane’s collection included a number of oriental objects, mainly purchased from the collection of Engelbert Kaempfer, medical officer of the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki in 1690–92. As with other departments, however, it was not until the mid-19th-century appointment of Franks as Keeper that the museum began to collect in any systematic or dedicated way. Before that, in 1830, the museum had been given by Sir Robert Brownrigg, Governor of Ceylon, one of its most beautiful objects, the gilt-bronze 9th-century Sri Lankan Bodhisattva Tara (Room 33), one of the finest examples of Asian figural bronze-casting. In 1836 the ‘disgraceful absence’ of Indian material was noted, only partly remedied by the 1872 acquisition of the Bridge collection of Indian sculpture. In 1879, however, came the closure and collection dispersal of the India Museum, which had been based at the East India Company headquarters in the City. From here came the 133 1st–3rd-century delicately carved limestone reliefs from the Great Stupa (Room 33a), the Buddhist relic-house at Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, southeast India. The carvings are one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures.

In 1888 Franks wrote that the museum ‘does not purchase oriental porcelain’, but over the years he had been building up his own personal collection, which he donated in 1885. It included many Japanese objects purchased at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris (Japanese material was now flooding into Europe following the opening up of Japan to the West in 1858). Franks’ gift was the stimulus for other private donations of oriental material, including Islamic pottery. The museum now has a fine collection of Persian lustreware and, most importantly, Iznik pottery (both Room 34). The acquisition in 1983 of the Frederick du Cane Godman collection (1834–1919) of Islamic pieces, Godman having been a friend of Franks, transformed the collection.

The most important collection of Chinese artefacts to come to the museum was that of the Hungarian archaeologist and explorer of the Silk Route Sir Aurel Stein. Objects began to arrive from 1900, the most important of which was the group of artefacts from the Tang period (618–906 ad): manuscripts, temple banners and paintings on silk and paper, including elaborate Paradise scenes, discovered in the Valley of a Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang (Study Collection). Strategically placed on the Silk Route, the area had been an important centre for Buddhist pilgrims who hollowed out over 1,000 cave shrines. In 1906, in cave 17, closed since the early 12th century, Stein made his important discovery. In 1903 the museum purchased a major piece of Chinese art, the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, a painted scroll illustrating Zhang Hua’s political parody attacking the excessive behaviour of the empress. The scroll is a valuable 6th–8th-century copy of the no-longer-extant original by the legendary artist Gu Kaizhi (345–406 ad), of whose work only a few not certainly attributed examples survive. The excellent collection of Japanese paintings and prints includes fine pieces from the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and a great collection of Ukiyo-e (prints and paintings of the ‘Floating World’ school which flourished in the 17th–19th centuries) including the famous Mount Fuji woodblock print series by the leading artist of the late Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

The Chinese collection was greatly enhanced in the 20th century by the 1935 acquisition of the vast George Eumorfopoulos collection, rich in paintings, ceramics, ivory, lacquer and jade objects. Split between the British Museum and the V&A, private donors helped fund the purchase including Sir Percival David. In 1999 the beautiful white porcelain 17th–18th-century Choson dynasty ‘Moon Jar’ was purchased for the important Korean collection (Room 67), a magnificent example of pure, austere Confucian taste. It was previously owned by the great British potters Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


National Maritime Museum
Wimbledon Windmill Museum
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
2 Willow Road (National Trust)
William Morris Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery
Westminster Abbey Museum
Wesley's Chapel
Wellington Arch (English Heritage)
Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)
Tate Modern
Tate Britain
Sutton House (National Trust)
Spencer House
Southside House
South London Art Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House)
Sir John Soane's Museum
Shakespeare’s Globe
Serpentine Gallery
Science Museum
St Bride’s Crypt Museum
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum
Saatchi Gallery
Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Mews
Royal London Hospital Museum
The Faraday Museum
Royal Hospital Chelsea
RCM Museum of Music
Royal Academy of Music Museum
Royal Academy of Arts
Red House (National Trust)
Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
Ragged School Museum
The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Osterley Park (National Trust)
Orleans House Gallery
Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
Natural History Museum
National Portrait Gallery
National Gallery
National Army Museum
Musical Museum
World Rugby Museum
Museum of the Order of St John
Museum No. 1 (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Museum of London
Garden Museum
Museum in Docklands (Museum of London)
The Royal Observatory
The Queen's House
Old Royal Naval College
Marianne North Gallery (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Marble Hill House (English Heritage)
Mall Galleries
Lord’s Tour and MCC Museum
London Transport Museum
London Fire Brigade Museum
London Canal Museum
18 Stafford Terrace – The Sambourne Family Home
Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Leighton House
Kingston Museum
Kew Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
London Museum of Water & Steam
Kenwood House (English Heritage)
Kensington Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Keats House
Jewish Museum
Jewel Tower (English Heritage)
Jerwood Space
Imperial War Museum
ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts
Hunterian Museum
Horniman Museum
HMS Belfast (Imperial War Museum)
Hayward Gallery
Handel House Museum
Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Ham House (National Trust)
Guildhall Art Gallery
Guards Museum
Grant Museum of Zoology & Comparative Anatomy
Geffrye Museum of the Home
Fulham Palace
Freud Museum
Foundling Museum
Forty Hall & Estate
Florence Nightingale Museum
Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum
Fenton House (National Trust)
Fashion and Textile Museum
Fan Museum
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Eltham Palace (English Heritage)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dr Johnson’s House
Dennis Severs' House
Danson House
Cutty Sark
Contemporary Applied Arts
Chiswick House (English Heritage)
Chelsea Physic Garden
Chartered Insurance Institute Museum
Charles Dickens Museum
Carlyle’s House (National Trust)
Camden Arts Centre
Cabinet War Rooms & Churchill Museum (Imperial War Museum)
Burgh House - The Hampstead Museum
Buckingham Palace
Brunel Engine House
Brunei Gallery SOAS
British Optical Association Museum
The British Museum
The British Library
Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee
Black Cultural Archives
Museum of Childhood (Victoria & Albert Museum)
Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Benjamin Franklin House
Ben Uri Gallery - The London Jewish Museum of Art
Barbican Art Gallery
Banqueting House (Historic Royal Palaces)
Bankside Gallery
Bank of England Museum
All Hallows Undercroft Museum
Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum




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