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The British Museum: 270 Years of Curating the World's Treasures

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#55 Science in History

5th April 1753

The British Museum was founded on 5th April 1753.

The British Museum is one of the world's oldest and most renowned cultural institutions. Over the years, it has amassed an unparalleled collection of objects that spans human history and civilizations.

The museum was established in 1753 after the British Parliament passed an act to acquire and preserve the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, a prominent physician. Montagu House, Bloomsbury was purchased the following year and Sloane’s collection moved to its new home.

The early years of the Museum’s history were characterized by a lack of space and resources, which severely limited its ability to expand its collections. However, this did not deter the museum's curators from seeking out and acquiring new objects. One of the most significant early acquisitions was the Elgin Marbles, a collection of ancient Greek sculptures and architectural fragments that were purchased by the British government from Lord Elgin in 1816. This acquisition sparked a fierce debate about the ethics of removing cultural artifacts from their original locations, a debate that continues to this day.

The Museum was the first national public museum in the world and the first museum to open its doors to the public free of charge. Over the years, it has continued to acquire objects from around the world, expanding its collections in a wide range of areas, including art, archaeology, anthropology, and history. Some of the most notable acquisitions include…

The Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in Egypt in 1799 and provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics.

The Sutton Hoo treasure, an Anglo-Saxon burial site that contained an extraordinary collection of gold and silver artifacts.

Over 50,000 drawings and prints, including works by famous artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt.

A collection of rare books and manuscripts, including a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first books to be printed with movable type.

The museum has also hosted many important exhibitions. In 1972, it hosted "The Treasures of Tutankhamun," which showcased a selection of objects from the tomb of the famous pharaoh, including the gold death mask, jewellery, and furniture. in 2019, the British Museum hosted "Troy: Myth and Reality," which included a display of artifacts from the ancient city of Troy, including a silver rhyton (drinking vessel) in the shape of a bull's head that was once owned by the wealthy British archaeologist and collector, Lord Carnarvon, who bankrolled the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb in the early 20th century. The rhyton was displayed alongside objects from other ancient civilizations that had connections to the Trojan War myth.

The British Museum's collections are not only impressive in their scope and diversity but also in their cultural and historical significance. The museum's galleries contain objects that span thousands of years and represent countless different cultures and civilizations. Visitors can see everything from ancient Egyptian mummies and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets to medieval European tapestries and Chinese porcelain.

The Museum has played a crucial role in shaping our understanding of the world and its history. It has been at the forefront of research and scholarship in a wide range of fields, from archaeology and anthropology to art history and conservation. Its scholars and curators have made significant contributions to our understanding of the past and continue to do so today.

The Museum's collections have also inspired artists, writers, and thinkers over the years, and its exhibitions and programs have introduced millions of people to the wonders of human history and culture. The museum's commitment to education and outreach has made it a vital resource for scholars, educators, and the public.


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