Although today principally a museum of cultural art objects and
antiquities, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the Irish-born British physician and naturalist
Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable
collection of curiosities and, not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to
King George II, for the nation, for a sum of £20,000.
At that time, Sloane's collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds
 including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000
manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants,
prints and drawings including those by
Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from
Ancient Near and
Far East and the
On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the
Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.
British Museum Act 1753 also added two other libraries to the Sloane collection, namely the
Cottonian Library, assembled by
Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to
Elizabethan times and the
Harleian library, the collection of the
Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the "Old Royal Library", now the
Royal manuscripts, assembled by various
British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library
 including the
Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving manuscript of
The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum – national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, while including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests.
 The addition of the
Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and
antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both
National Museum and
Cabinet of curiosities (1753–78)
The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion,
Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the
Montagu family for £20,000. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by
Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.
With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and
reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759.
 In 1823, King George IV
 gave the
King's Library assembled by George III, and Parliament gave the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the
Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and
David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired for £8,410 its first significant antiquities in
Sir William Hamilton's "first" collection of
Indolence and energy (1778–1800)
Entrance ticket to the British Museum, London 3 March 1790
From 1778, a display of objects from the
South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain
James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books,
engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by
Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the Museum's reputation; but Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.
The museum's first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir
William Hamilton (1730–1803), British Ambassador to
Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the Museum, dated 31 January 1784, refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an
Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the
Royal Society in London.
Growth and change (1800–25)
In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid and Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the
French campaign in the
Battle of the Nile, in 1801, the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculptures and in 1802
King George III presented the
Rosetta Stone – key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs.
 Gifts and purchases from
Henry Salt, British consul general in Egypt, beginning with the
Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture.
 Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the
Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman Sculpture, in 1805. In 1806,
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the
Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the
Parthenon, on the
Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to the UK. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter.
 The collections were supplemented by the
Bassae frieze from
Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of
Babylonian antiquities from the widow of
Claudius James Rich.
In 1802 a Buildings Committee was set-up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the
King's Library, personal library of King George III's, comprising 65,000 volumes, 19,000
pamphlets, maps, charts and
Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the Museum "... for the reception of the
Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..."
 and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old
Montagu House was demolished and work on the
King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the
National Gallery, London in 1824,
[e] the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the
Natural history collections.
The largest building site in Europe (1825–50)
The Museum became a construction site as
Sir Robert Smirke's grand
neo-classical building gradually arose. The
King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London. Although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, special openings were arranged during
The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.
In 1840, the Museum became involved in its first overseas
Charles Fellows's expedition to
Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient
Lycia, among them the
Payava monuments. In 1857,
Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC
Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the Museum supported excavations in
A.H. Layard and others at sites such as
Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of
Ashurbanipal's great library of
tablets, which helped to make the Museum a focus for
Sir Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), a Trustee of The British Museum from 1830, assembled a library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the Museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to
St Pancras in 1998.
Collecting from the wider world (1850–75)
The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of
Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for
Assyrian sculptures and
Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in
South Kensington, which would later become the
British Museum of Natural History.
Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian
Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now part of the
British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library, the largest library in the world after the
National Library of Paris.
quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.
Until the mid-19th century, the Museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of
Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the Museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities,
prehistory, branching out into Asia and diversifying its holdings of
ethnography. A real coup for the museum was the purchase in 1867, over French objections, of the
Duke of Blacas's wide-ranging and valuable collection of antiquities. Overseas excavations continued and
John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century BC
Temple of Artemis at
Wonder of the Ancient World.
Scholarship and legacies (1875–1900)
The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum of Natural History in 1887, nowadays the
Natural History Museum. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and
ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.
William Burges collection of
armoury was bequeathed to the museum in 1881. In 1882, the Museum was involved in the establishment of the independent
Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator,
A.W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300
finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500
inro, over 30,000
bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the
Waddesdon Bequest, the glittering contents from his New Smoking Room at
Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of
objets d'art et de vertu which included exquisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and
maiolica, among them the
Holy Thorn Reliquary, probably created in the 1390s in Paris for
John, Duke of Berry. The collection was in the tradition of a
schatzkammer or treasure house such as those formed by the
Renaissance princes of Europe.
 Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be
placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it.
These terms are still observed, and the collection occupies room 45, although it will move to new quarters in 2015.
New century, new building (1900–25)
By the last years of the 19th century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the Museum building was no longer big enough for them. In 1895 the trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the Museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the West, North and East sides of the Museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.
All the while, the collections kept growing.
Emil Torday collected in Central Africa,
Aurel Stein in Central Asia,
Leonard Woolley and
T. E. Lawrence excavated at
Carchemish. Around this time, the American collector and philanthropist
J Pierpont Morgan donated a substantial number of objects to the museum,
William Greenwell's collection of prehistoric artefacts from across Europe which he had purchased for £10,000 in 1908. Morgan had also acquired a major part of Sir
John Evans's coin collection, which was later sold to the museum by his son
John Pierpont Morgan Junior in 1915. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated to a Postal Tube Railway at Holborn, the
National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near
Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919 some objects were found to have deteriorated. A temporary conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence.
 In 1923, the British Museum welcomed over one million visitors.
Disruption and reconstruction (1925–50)
mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In 1931, the art dealer
Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the
Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect
John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades.
[f] However, in August 1939, due to the imminence of war and the likelihood of air-raids the Parthenon Sculptures along with Museum's most valued collections were dispersed to secure basements,
Aldwych Underground station, the
National Library of Wales and a quarry. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing.
 Meanwhile, prior to the war, the Nazis had sent a researcher to the British Museum for several years with the aim of "compiling an anti-Semitic history of Anglo-Jewry."
 After the war, the Museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2600 BC
Mesopotamian treasure from
Ur, discovered during
Leonard Woolley's 1922–34 excavations. Gold, silver and
garnet grave goods from the
Anglo-Saxon ship burial at
Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from
Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946). The immediate
post-war years were taken up with the return of the collections from protection and the restoration of the museum after the
Blitz. Work also began on restoring the damaged Duveen Gallery.
A new public face (1950–75)
In 1953, the Museum celebrated its
bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full-time in house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, A
Friends organisation was set up in 1968, an Education Service established in 1970 and publishing house in 1973. In 1963, a new Act of Parliament introduced administrative reforms. It became easier to lend objects, the constitution of the
Board of Trustees changed and the
Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the
Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of
Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries.
 In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.
By the 1970s the Museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of
Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of
manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the Museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints & drawings; and
ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 11⁄4 miles of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at
St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.
The Great Court emerges (1975–2000)
The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in
Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the
Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – which opened in 2000. The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived
Museum of Mankind at
6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries in the museum in 2000.
The Museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as
Indonesia and there were excavations in the
Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The
Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered
hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The Museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.
The British Museum today
Today the museum no longer houses collections of
natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The Museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the
Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.
Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect
Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the Museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at
St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore
With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum empty, the process of demolition for
Lord Foster's glass-roofed
Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the
Sainsbury family – with the donation valued at £25 million.
As part of its very large website, the museum has the largest
online database of objects in the collection of any museum in the world, with 2,000,000 individual object entries, 650,000 of them illustrated, online at the start of 2012.
 There is also a "Highlights" database with longer entries on over 4,000 objects, and several specialised online research catalogues and online journals (all free to access).
 In 2013 the museum's website received 19.5 millions visits, an increase of 47% from the previous year.
In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year.
 Popular exhibitions including "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum" and "Ice Age Art" are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors.
 Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game
Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.