The British Museum - An International Icon


Jan 12, 2015 by James

In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane - doctor, naturalist, collector and the man who brought milk chocolate to Europe - died. During his lifetime, Sloane had collected more than 71,000 objects and he bequeathed them all to King George II and the nation, in return for a payment to his inheritors of £20,000. The authorities accepted this arrangement and the Sloane bequest, along with two other libraries of national importance, became the basis of the British Museum, which was established by Act of Parliament on the 7th of June 1753.

In 1757 George II added the Royal Library to the museum, and with it the right of copyright receipt - this later led to the foundation of the British Library.



Today, the British Museum is a highly distinctive building, with a striking Greek Revival Façade created by Sir Robert Smirke, which looks out onto the bustle of Great Russell Street. However, when the museum opened to the public, on the 15th of January 1759, it was housed in a very different environment, a large house on the site of the current building. Entry to the new museum was free, and in the early years it welcomed around 5,000 visitors - currently, it welcomes 6.7 million visitors annually.



As the decades and centuries passed, the British Museum acquired items of exceptional international interest, including the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the meaning of hieroglyphs. In 1840, museum staff undertook their first archaeological excavations abroad.

The collections grew, and as space became precious, the decision was made to move the natural history items to another building nearby: this is now the Natural History Museum. Today, the British Museum holds more than eight million objects, with millions of others residing in its 'offshoots', the Natural History Museum and the British Library.

Expansion continued in the twentieth century, and in 1997 the library (which had become the British Library in 1973) moved to a new site in St Pancras.


Looking forward

The British Museum is now looking forward to its latest development, a massive building project that will culminate in the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. The intention is for the new project to take conservation, scientific research and collection management to the highest levels of excellence.

According to the April 2014 edition of The Art Newspaper, the British Museum is the second most visited art museum in the world, behind the Louvre in Paris; broadcaster CNN placed it fifth in their list of most-visited museums of all types, worldwide, in the summer of 2014.

As befits a national icon, the British Museum has kept up with the changing times, and has a very popular presence on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. It also has a staggeringly comprehensive collection of catalogues and related information available on its website, all accessible for free and accompanied by high quality photography. Visitors can search more than 2 million objects and take a wealth of online tours.

The British Museum has been a British icon since the eighteenth century and now, with 6.7 million visitors a year, it is more popular with visitors than ever. Thanks to technology and the foresight of museum staff, that looks set to continue for many years to come.