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The British Museum, London

The British Museum has its roots in a gentleman's private collection, the type of collection that can still be seen at grand houses such as Petworth or Chatsworth today. The collection of Sir Hans Sloane, however, took a step up, and became the first of a new kind of museum, a national museum not belonging to a church, monarch or individual, but open to the public and aiming to collect everything. This kind of museum was linked to developments in science and in the advancement of democratic principles (read more on our History of Museums page).

Physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660 - 1753) was a keen collector, and brought back eight hundred assorted items from his trip to the West Indies between 1687 and 1689. Setting up a museum at numbers 3 and 4 Bloomsbury Place to display his treasures, he added to the collection as he could. Then in 1742 Sloane decided to retire to Chelsea, and bequeathed his collection to George II. On 7th June 1753 George II formally established the British Museum as the first independent national museum. The Museum then grew, notably with additions from the Royal Society scientific collection in 1781, and George III's library, donated by his son George IV in 1823. This expanding collection was housed in the quadrangular building seen today, built by Sir Robert Smirke, and largely complete by 1852. The round Reading Room was then built in the central courtyard between 1854 and 1857.



The Reading Room would be used by many famous writers and thinkers. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, largely in the Reading Room. Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Michael Faraday are amongst the many famous holders of readers' tickets listed on a board just inside the doors of the Reading Room. Virginia Woolf memorably described the experience of working in the Reading room in the 1920s. This was a place where "all was chill serenity, dignity and severity. Written up are the names of great men; and we all cower like mice nibbling crumbs in our most official discreet, impersonal mood beneath. I like this dusty bookish atmosphere. Most of the readers seemed to have rubbed their noses off and written their eyes out. Yet they have a life they like - believe in the necessity of making books I suppose: verify, collate, make up other books forever" (From Jacob's Room).

In 1997 the British Museum's book collection was moved to new accommodation at the British Library in St Pancras. The Reading Room now contains the Paul Hamlyn collection on world cultures. The Reading Room is open to visitors who can access the Museum's on-line catalogue via computers which sit on the original study benches.

In 2000 the central courtyard in which the Reading Room sits was enclosed by a spectacular glass roof.

The British Museum's collection spans the world. Here you can see the Elgin Marbles, and wall reliefs from the palace of Nimrud built in 875BC. There is a comprehensive collection of historic coinage. There are also collections from Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific, Greece, Europe and Japan. British collections are particularly comprehensive for the Iron Age, Celtic Britain and Roman Britain.

Film enthusiasts may be interested to know that Maurice and Arabesque were filmed at the British Museum.



Opening Times: Please use contact details below.

There are restaurant facilities available.

Directions: The British Museum is in Bloomsbury. The main entrance is in Great Russell Street, with an alternative entrance in Montague Place. The nearest Underground station is Tottenham Court, 300m from the Museum. Holborn, Russel Square and Goodge Street stations are all within 800m. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on the British Museum.

Access: The Museum is fully accessible for people with mobility problems. There are lifts on either side of the twelve steps at the main entrance, self operable, or with help available via a bell. Inside there are lifts to all levels. Adapted toilets are available in the Great Court, Ford Young Visitors Centre, and Clore Gallery. Large print leaflets, and magnifying glasses are available from the Information Desk. An audio information CD is provided in the Reading Room library. Limited car parking for disabled users is permitted on the Museum forecourt. Contact the Museum in advance on the contact number below. Have your vehicle details ready. Sign interpreted talks are provided, details of which are available at the Information Desk.




telephone: 020 7323 8299

fax: 020 7323 8985


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©2006 InfoBritain (updated 11/12)