Located on Great Russell Street, in the Bloomsbury area of London, the British Museum is the first museum in the world that documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present with its permanent collections of more than eight million invaluable collections. It is said that London is a city of museums as it has a museum for everything, but the British Museum overshadows and outshines all the rest.
Established by an act of Parliament in 1753, and opened to the public in 1759, the museum was initially based on the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician, and naturalist, Robert Harley, the 1st Earl of Oxford, and Sir Robert Cotton, a prominent Parliamentarian in the reign of Charles I and the founder of the Cottonian Library, a huge collection of manuscripts, dating back to Elizabethan times. The collections were housed in a grand mansion on Montagu Street, bought from the Montagu family, and the first exhibition galleries and reading room for the scholars were opened on 15 January 1759. It was the first of a new kind of museum that belonged neither to the king nor to the church, but the nation, freely open to the public and aiming to increase its collection.
In 1784 the collection of the museum was substantially enriched when Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, sold to the museum his collection of Greek and Roman artifacts, including the Colossal Foot of an Apollo in marble, along with several other antiquities and natural history specimens. However, the collection of the British Museum started to grow rapidly during the early 19th century when it acquired many Egyptian sculptures in 1801, after the defeat of the French campaign in the Battle of Nile, and King George III presented it the Rosetta Stone, a key to the deciphering hieroglyphs in 1802.
Apart from that, in 1806, Thomas Bruce, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803, transferred a huge collection of marble sculptures to the UK, which he removed from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens. Those invaluable masterpieces of ancient western art were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament in 1816 and subsequently shifted to the museum.
To properly accommodate its invaluable collection and to arrange them systematically, a building committee was set up in 1802 to plan for the expansion of the museum building. The need for the expansion was urgently felt in 1822 when George IV gifted the museum the Royal library, the personal library of his father, George III, consisting of 60,000 books, 19,000 pamphlets, several charts, maps, and topographical drawings. In fact, the mansion on Montagu Street was not in a condition to accommodate the huge collection. To meet the immediate need, the neoclassical architect Sir Robert Smirke was entrusted with the responsibility to design an eastern extension to the museum to accommodate the Royal Library and a Picture Gallery, and also to draw up plans for the future quadrangular building.
Construction of the Eastern wing began in 1823 and was completed by 1831. However, before the completion of the new East wing, construction of the remaining wings also began in 1827, which took 32 years to complete, along with the creation of the famous quadrangle with two-acre courtyards and an impressive colonnaded portico. But the building went through several additions, alterations, and restoration, and several architects, other than Sir Robert Smirke, like Sir John Taylor, Sydney Smirke, and John Russell, added to the decoration and beauty of the massive mansion.
To make room for the final part of the West wing, the old Montagu House was demolished in 1842, and it was subsequently completed in 1846, while the South wing with its magnificent colonnade was initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847 when the Front Hall and the Great Staircase were simultaneously opened to the public. The Round Reading Room beneath its copper dome of 140 feet (43 m) diameter was constructed during 1854-1857, and the White Wing was added in 1882-1884, behind the East end of the South Front.
Created in the Greek revival style, with 45 feet (14 m) tall 44 Ionic columns, the façade of the building of the British Museum closely resembles the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance, supported by the columns, was decorated by reputed sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott with the depiction of The Progress of Civilization with fifteen allegorical figures and was installed in 1852.
With nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, covering around 3.2 km of exhibition space, the British Museum has grown steadily to become one of the largest museums in the world, enriched with its different departments allotted to different parts of the world. With more than 100,000 pieces, it has the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. However, with its seven permanent galleries, along with Room 4 reserved for monumental sculptures, it displays only 4% of its Egyptian articles. Apart from the colossal statue of Amenhotep III, The Egyptian galleries exhibits include, among others, an ancient bronze statue of Bastet, the cat goddess, three black granite statues of the goddess Sekhmet, the green siltstone head of a Pharaoh, the black siltstone obelisk of King Nectanebo II, a statue of Sekhmet with Princess Neferure on his lap, a pair of granite monumental statues of lions, Book of the Dead of Hunefer, and many more. The second-galleries exhibit selected mummies, coffins, and gilded outer coffins, which is again the largest outside Cairo. With more than 100,000 pieces of antiquities, the British Museum has one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections from the classical world of Greece and Rome that include, among others, the Elgin Marbles, consisting mostly of architectural details from the Parthenon at Athens, and other Greek sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. It also houses the largest and most important collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq. Apart from the department of Britain and Europe, the other departments of the British Museum include the Department of Asia, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Department of Prints and Drawings, Department of Coins and Medals, and many more.
In 1997, the old Reading Room of the museum was transformed into an exhibition space, and in 2000, the Great Court, the largest covered court in Europe, also known as the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, was opened, connecting the new Reading Room with its spectacular glass canopy spanning the two acres of the courtyard. Although the natural history collections of the museum were shifted to the Natural History Museum, and its collection of books became part of the independent British Library, the British Museum still deserves a special place for the unparalleled universality of its collections representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern.