10 things you don’t know about the British Museum

British Museum

Today marks the 225th anniversary of the British Museum. It opened on January 15th, 1759. If I had a bucket list a visit to the museum would be number 1. But since a trip to London may be a year or two away I decided to take a virtual tour today to give you:

 10 things you don’t know about the British Museum

How to get rid of the thousands of items your heirs don’t want

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.

 It’s just an old library

The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the ‘Old Royal Library’ of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.

If you open it, will they come?

The museum first opened its doors on the 15th January 1759 in Montague House, a seventeenth-century mansion on the site of the current Museum. The museum quickly grew in popularity with the masses and with the wealthy who found a new way to one-up each other; bequeaths and “acquisitions” forced the library to move several times to larger locations.

Roughly 80,000 objects are on public display at the British Museum at any one time. This is 1% of the collection. Many of its objects are light sensitive and cannot be displayed.

Can’t make it to the museum?  Don’t worry 2 million objects and background information are available to the public through the online catalogue. The app is pretty impressive as well.

Oldest stone tool in BM

The Oldest piece in the museum

The Olduvia stone tool From Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, is 1.8-2 million years old. To date, this is the oldest piece housed in the museum.

So what else would we see?

Among the vast collection are: the Rosetta Stone; statues that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, Greece; a four-ton stone likeness of the pharaoh Amenhotep III; and several mummified cats from ancient Egypt.

Sutton Ho helmet

Many objects from the Sutton Hoo burial ship are on display at the museum. This would be reason enough to visit.

Caveman shopper

Best museum hoax ever!

 In 2005, a then little-known hoaxer named Banksy tricked museum staff by putting a ‘cave painting’ of a primitive man pushing a supermarket trolley on display. It was up for only a few days, though you may find it now in the Kentucky Creation museum.

Oddest Piece

A life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of rock crystal (a clear, colorless variety of quartz). It was acquired by the Museum in 1897 purporting to be an ancient Mexican object. However scientific research conducted by the Museum has established that the skull was most likely produced in the nineteenth century in Europe. As such the object is not an authentic pre-Columbian artifact.

Pompeii victim

And you thought a mummy might be a little too much

Last March through September, visitors lined up to get a firsthand look at life in ancient Rome. This up close and personal view was only possible because of the terrible tragedy that devastated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. The exhibition included casts from in and around Pompeii and of some of the victims of the eruption. A family of two adults and their two children are huddled together, just as in their last moments under the stairs of their villa. The most famous of the casts on display is of a dog, fixed forever at the moment of its death as the volcano submerged the cities. I’m not sure I would want to get that up close. I trip to the museum should not result in tears and sorrow. With that in mind, I will leave you with John Oliver’s take on the British Museum. Hopefully you find him as funny as I do. Enjoy

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

5 thoughts on “10 things you don’t know about the British Museum”

    1. Vickie,
      Thank you so much! Yes the house will be on my list. My 10 day tour may end up being 3 weeks. Though truth be told, once in London I may never want to leave England.


  1. I do hope you enjoy the BM once you get to visit it and that London andthe rest of the UK doesn’t disappoint. There are loads of other museums worth a look at, many free: the Victoria & Albert, Science and Natural History Museums, amd galleries like the National Gallery and, next door, its sister the National Portrait Gallery. The Wallace Collection, the Saatchi and Royal Academy of Art are worth a look though the last is paying


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