Town Guide

British Museum

Great Russell Street, WC1
020 7636 1555
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road

The first thing to be said about the British Museum is that there are over 4 million exhibits - which gives you some idea as to its size. And the second thing is that over 6 million visitors look round the museum each year!

But don't be daunted by the size or the numbers, for this museum has a reputation as one of the best in the world. The layout, labelling, and atmosphere make it very visitor friendly, and the quality and extent of the collections are awe-inspiring.

By far the best way to tackle the vastness that is the British Museum is to decide which bits you are interested in and just stick to them. If you are still at a loss, there are four suggested tours that you could take, and several guided tours are available.

The museum was founded in 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane (yes, of Sloane Square) died and left his collection of natural history artefacts, antiquities and art to the nation. In the same year a collection of manuscripts was purchased, which started the museum's literary collection.

During imperialism the collection expanded rapidly, but nowadays there have been accusations that this amounted to cultural piracy. This has led to various demands that several important pieces are returned to their countries of origin, notably the Elgin Marbles that were taken from the Pathenon in Greece. As yet these demands haven't been met and disputes such as these look set to continue.

By the 1840s the collection had outgrown its premises and so the present building, designed by Robert Smirke, was built in1847. Stunning in itself, the impressive outside gives you a good idea of the standards you can expect inside.

Space has been a continuous problem for the museum, and so in the 1880s the natural history collection was moved to its own premises in South Kensington, now the Natural History Museum. And the manuscript collections of the British Library have recently been moved to Euston Road.

The British Museum is open daily, from 10am-5pm Mondays to Saturdays and from 2.30am-6pm Sundays. Admission is free. A café and restaurant are available for refreshments.

Highlights of the British Museum's collection include:

  • The Rosetta Stone which provided the breakthrough for archeologists trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics;

  • The Elgin Marbles from the Pathenon in Greece;

  • The Magna Carta from 1215 that first regulated the Monarch's power and established personal rights in Britain;

  • The Mildenhall Treasure - a collection of silverware dating from Roman times;

  • The 7th century Sutton Hoo burial treasures;

  • The murdered 2,000 year old Lindow Man who had been preserved in a peat bog in Cheshire (and who has been wittily nicknamed 'Pete Marsh' as a result);

  • The Egyptian Galleries, which house an impressive collection of mummies;

  • The Battersea Shield, dating from around 200 BC, that was discovered in the Thames near Battersea.

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