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What is the British Museum?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2016
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The British Museum was established by King George II of England in 1753, to house the collection of antiquities left to the king by Sir Hans Sloane. Since then, it has become one the world’s largest and most respected collections of human artifacts. Like most British national museums, the British Museum is free to visit, and is well worth a day of exploration while visiting London.

Over its history, the museum has been blessed with spectacular collections donated by artifact hunters from around the world. Captain James Cook routinely sent his collection of specimens and discoveries from his travels to the museum for display. By the turn of the 19th century, the British Museum had become a major collector of Egyptian antiquities, including the famed Rosetta Stone, which allowed the translation of hieroglyphs. In addition to the human artifacts, the collection originally included natural history specimens and a tremendous library, including the only surviving copy of Beowulf. These collections were later housed in separate institutions, including the British Library and British Natural History Museum.

By the 1820s, the collection had grown so enormous, the area surrounding the original building was purchased and reconstructed to hold the museum. The new galleries and main buildings were designed and built by brothers Sir Robert and Sydney Smirke, and construction continued for more than three decades. Today, the museum remains in its original position, and recently celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003.

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Today, the British Museum holds one of the greatest collections of human history in the world. Originally, the collection was divided into three fairly haphazard categories: manuscripts, printed books, and natural or artificial artifacts. The catch-all third category was naturally enormous, and led to considerable reorganization over time. Today, the collection is described with far more accuracy with the main departments including regional sections such as Asia, Egypt and Assyria, and descriptive branches such as coins and medals, prints and documents, and prehistory.

A collection of historical artifacts so varied cannot exist without controversy, and the British Museum sparks plenty. Two of their most famous exhibits, Elgin’s Marbles and the Brass plaques of Benin, are under constant lobby to be returned to their home countries. Additionally, many object to the display of Egyptian tomb artifacts, claiming that the excavation of these items constitutes severe disrespect toward the burial customs of ancient Egyptian culture, and is even comparable to grave robbing. Historically, the museum has accepted artifacts taken in less-than-friendly circumstances, which has led to considerable bad feelings from time to time.

If you are in London and would like to visit the British Museum, it is open every day from 10 AM to 5:30 PM, with late hours available on Thursday and Friday. Prepare to spend most of your day here, as the collections are vast and incredibly fascinating for any history lover. Stop for a snack at the museum café, or check out one of the lovely restaurants in nearby Holborn. The British Museum is located in central London, and is easily reachable by bus, tube or on foot from any central location.

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