More Shark Guides
- About London
- Tourist Sights
The British Museum was first opened in 1753, and like most museums of the time, got its start when a rich donor turned his personal collection into a public one. In this instance, the rich man was doctor and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. Over the course of the next two decades, the museum became one of the world’s most extensive collections of ancient artwork and solidified its colonialist reputation for snagging treasures from foreign lands and transplanting them to London. A great deal of controversy has ensued, and people all over the world have been debating the museum and its contents for centuries.
The 18th century mainly saw the addition of English and European works, like the only surviving copy of Beowulf, Civil War Diaries, David Garrick’s collection of plays. It also included the first additions of “exotic” pieces including Greek vases.
British wars and imposed colonialism in the Middle East during the 19th century brought the edition of foreign and much more controversial pieces that some scholars would consider to be “pillaged” by the British. Collections expanded to include marble sculptures from the Parthenon and Acropolis, the Rosetta Stone which was taken during the Battle of the Nile in 1801, and the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the world.
The possession of these items is defended by many people by arguing that the British Museum funded the excavations, and is therefore entitled to the spoils of these projects. However, historians and scholars often argue that history and antiquity are the possession of the cultures from whence they came.
Collecting cultural antiquity from all over the world since the mid 18th century, the British museum plays host to some of the most famous permanent exhibitions in the world.
Without a doubt, the most popular and most often visited artifact in the museum is the Rosetta Stone, a tablet that the British excavated in Egypt and which dates back to 196 BC. The stone is special because it contains the key that first made it possible for scholars to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs to Greek.
The Eglin Marbles are a set of classical Greek sculptures that date back to the 5th century BC. They are some of the most highly contested items in the museum. During the Ottoman Empire, British explorers were given permission by the Ottoman Empire to remove these pieces from the Acropolis in Athens. Since then, the government of Greece as well as UNESCO has argued that this action was illegal and that the Marbles should be returned to Greece.
The British Museum argues these claims based on the fact that ancient antiquity is scattered in museums all over the world, and if all museums were required to fulfill restitutions such as these, there would be no museums.
As the largest and one of the most popular museums in London, the British Museum plays host to a wide and every changing variety of temporary exhibitions. Temporary exhibitions range from ancient art and sculpture to contemporary art and photography. A recent temporary exhibition entitled “Hajj” includes photographs and documentary footage detailing the Islamic tradition of pilgrimage to Mecca. In addition to these modern exhibits, it also includes ancient Islamic artwork and textiles.
Hours of Operation
The British Museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. Admission to the museum is always free.
Located squarely in central London, the British Museum is easily accessible via the London underground tube network. For convenient access to the museum, take the Northern line to Goodge Street or take the Central or Northern line to Tottenham Court Road. Each stop is approximately a 10 minute walk to the entrance of the museum.