The British Museum is a marvel. While not on the vast jumble sale scale of the Victoria and Albert Museum, it has an astonishing collection of antiquities from around the world. Wherever you stand on the ethical question of plundering treasures from other countries, the British Museum's contents are impressive.

The museum was founded in 1753, when King George II gave his assent to the British Museum Act, which allowed the nation to purchase the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the Harleian collection of manuscripts and the library of Sir Robert Cotton, which had formed the original nucleus of the Museum.

The Royal Library, founded by Edward IV in 1471, was given to the Museum by King George II in 1757 and the museum opened to the public in 1759. Admission to the Montagu House buildings in Bloomsbury was by ticket only.

Following the deafeat of Napoleon and the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria, George III presented a set of Egyptian antiquities to the museum, including the Rosetta Stone. The much disputed Elgin Marbles and a set of sculptures from The Parthenon were added in 1816, after Lord Elgin purchased them for the nation for 35,000 pounds.

The collection, and the buildings have continued to grow throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries adding more exhibition space, galleries, and study space in Bloomsbury and around London. The new Great Court, designed by Foster and Partners has just been completed, and opens to the public tomorrow increasing the space of the museum by fifty per cent. It's a two acre square, with a glass roof, enclosing the whole central courtyard area of the museum and the newly restored old Reading Room of the British Library. It's the largest covered public square in Europe.

The Reading Room was closed in 1997, and though a large amount of printed and paper materials (including maps, stamps and music) were moved over to the British Library's new home at St. Pancras, the museum's printroom contains some four million prints, drawings and printed books. The Natural History Collection was split off to form a new museum in South Kensington in the 1880s. The ethnographical collections were housed in the Museum of Mankind but are returning to Bloomsbury in 2001.

During the Second World War, all the most important objects were sent out of London or stored in basements, or in the unused stretches of the London Underground. But incendiary bombs fell on the Museum in May 1942, causing serious fires that burned through the night, destroying quarter of a million books.

I love the British Museum. I've spent weeks in there. The Assyrian Collection alone is worth several days of visits. The 300,000 square feet of the Classical and Assyrian Sculpture Galleries includes stone reliefs, narrative panels, huge stone lions covered in cuneiform, temple doors, seals, sculptures, and metalwork that will make your eyes bleed. There's a sense of wonder, standing close to these towering monuments, puzzling over the script carved into stone, itching to touch the smooth flanks of the ancient lions.

Being able to get so close to the exhibits is amazing: peering at the Rosetta Stone, eyes just millimetres from the surface gives you a different hold on something that admiring from behind glass. Walking around a sculpture of an Egyptian Prince, seeing the shape of the backs of his feet, or seeing the folded fingers under the detailed weave of a mummy's wrappings gives them a humanity that shinks the millenia between us and them.

The Anglo-Saxon collections, from archeological digs in Britain itself, though not as daunting as the ancient mummies and the vast statuary from the Near East contain small gems. The Sutton Hoo Ship burial collection, for example, contains rare helmets, shields, gold belt buckles, coins and jewellery that changed the understanding of craftsmanship of the era.

Their record in scholarship, research, conservation and curating is world class. The museum describes its role in three parts, namely:
  • that the collections are held in perpetuity in their entirety;
  • that they are widely available to all who seek to enjoy and learn from them; and
  • that they are curated by full-time specialists
You could spend a lifetime in this museum, looking, learning, absorbing the details. Some items have been there for decades, and are still providing new information...some inscriptions remain untranslated, some broken pieces still unassembled, some objects still mysterious.

Entrance to the museum is free.

Do take a look at their website (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk) The Compass project has pictures and fairly detailed information about 3000 objects from the collections.

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