The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.[a]
The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of an expanding British colonial footprint and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1887. Some objects in the collection, most notably the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, are the objects of intense controversy and calls for restitution to their countries of origin.
Until 1997, when the British Library (previously centred on the Round Reading Room) moved to a new site, the British Museum was unique in that it housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee. Since 2002 the director of the museum has been Neil MacGregor. Conservative Peer Lord Sainsbury has pledged to donate £25 million to the Museum to aid funding for a large scale extension, set to make it the world's largest museum by collection upon completion.
Like other publicly funded national museums in the United Kingdom, the British Museum does not levy an admission charge.
Although principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities today, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the 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 the princely 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 Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.
On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.[b] The Foundation Act, added two other libraries to the Sloane collection. 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 Royal Library, 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 copy of Beowulf.[c]
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, whilst including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests. The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both national museum and library.
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.[d]
With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759. In 1757 King George II gave the Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note; Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases. 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, but yet contained few ancient relics recognisable to visitors of the modern museum.