Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

British Museum

British Museum

British Museum

The British Museum is one of the oldest public museums in the world, established in 1753. Today the British Museum’s collection includes over eight million objects housed in ninety-four different Galleries. It is a museum where every visit brings something new. “Joy of Museums” covers the key highlights of the British Museum and provides background information to help you to appreciate its many mysteries & treasures.

Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

Asian Collection

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

Information on The British Museum

The History The British Museum

The British Museum is one of the oldest public museums in the world, established in 1753. Founded by the English Parliament, it set the model for all other public museums that followed. Before the introduction of the British Museum as an open museum, museums were private collections of kings, wealthy people, the church or universities. The British Museum Act of Parliament in 1753 states that it was founded so that it may

“be preserved and maintained, not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and the curious but the general use and benefit of the public”.

The British Museum was established when the trustees purchased a 17th-century mansion called Montagu House, in Bloomsbury as the location for the new museum. The beginnings of the British Museum was the government’s acceptance of responsibility for three private collections bequeathed to the nation. Sir Hans Sloane made one of the first collections. Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753),  a physician and naturalist, is considered the founder of the British Museum collection because he did not wish to see his collection broken up after death, so he bequeathed it to King George II for the nation. During his lifetime, Sloane gathered a significant collection of 71,000 objects which included: books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, antiquities from Europe, Africa, Americas, the Ancient Near and the Far East and an extensive collection of natural history specimens.

From the beginning, public access to the British Museum was free of charge although in the early period there were only a limited number of daily tickets issued to manage the size of crowds. The old Montagu House mansion eventually became too small as the collections of the museum increased. Thus Montagu House gave way in 1824 to the beginning of a series of successive building projects that continued to expand the floor space of the museum, and these successive expansion developments have continued right up to modern times.

In 1998 to enable the continued growth of visitor numbers and for the growing collections, the British Library was split from the British Museum to a new location as an independent museum at St Pancras. This move led to a transformation of the famous “Round Reading Room”, which opened in 1857 and had served the many prominent literary figures and researchers who came to consult the Museum’s vast library. Today the “Round Reading Room” is in the centre of the “Great Court” which enclosed what vast exposed space into an integral part of the enclosed museum. The “Great Court” of the British Museum, is now covered by the tessellated roof surrounding the “Round Reading Room”.

Today the British Museum collection consists of over 8 million objects. Only 80,000 objects are on public display at any one time, which is only 1% of the total collection. The British Museum is organised into departments as follows:

  • Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection
  • Middle East Collection
  • Ancient Greece and Rome Collection
  • Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection
  • Asian Collection
  • Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection
  • Prints and Drawings Collection

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Egyptian antiquities collection started in 1753 with the behest of Sir Hans Sloane’s Egyptian objects. The collection was further expanded after the defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1801; the British army confiscated the French Egyptian antiquities collection and presented to the British Museum in 1803. From these early foundations, the museum supported purchases and excavations in Egypt until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt, and later Sudan led to the suspension in exports of archaeological finds. The size of the Egyptian collections now stands at over 110,000 objects.

The British Museum houses one of the most extensive collections of Egyptian and Sudanese antiquities outside Egypt and Sudan. The collection covers the cultures of the Nile Valley including Nubia, from the Predynastic Neolithic period (c. 10,000 BC) through to the Coptic Christian times (12th century AD), a time-span over eleven thousand years. There are seven permanent Egyptian galleries, which display less than 5% of its total Egyptian holdings. The second-floor galleries have a selection of the of mummies, coffins and tomb artefacts associated with the cult of the dead.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan collection cover the following periods:
    • Predynastic and Early Dynastic period (c. 6000 BC – c. 2690 BC)
    • Old Kingdom (2690–2181 BC)
    • Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC)
    • New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC)
    • Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BC)
    • Late Period (664–332 BC)
    • Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC)
  • Roman Period (30 BC-641 AD)

Middle East Collection

The Middle East collection includes sculptured reliefs from the Assyrian palaces at Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, as well as exhibits from ancient sites across the Middle East as well as a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. The Middle East collections represent the civilisations of Mesopotamia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia, Syria, the Holy Land and Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean from the prehistoric period and include objects from the beginning of Islam in the 7th century.

The Middle East collection covers the many civilisations from the following regions:
  • Mesopotamia
  • Persia
  • Arabian Peninsula
  • Anatolia
  • Syria
  • The Holy Land
  • Western Mediterranean
  • The Caucasus and  parts of Central Asia

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

The collections from Ancient Greece and Rome at the British Museum is one of the world’s largest from the Classical world, with over 100,000 objects. They range in date from the beginning of the Ancient Greek world to the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Greek objects originate from across the Ancient Greek world, from the mainland of Greece and the Aegean Islands to neighbouring lands in Asia Minor and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean and as far as the western lands of Magna Graecia that include Sicily and southern Italy.

The Greek collection includes the famous sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, as well as elements of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.

The Ancient Greece and Rome collection highlights include:
  • Marble figure of a Woman – Cycladic, Spedos Type
  • The Parthenon Marbles
  • The Parthenon Frieze
  • Metopes of the Parthenon
  • Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon
  • The Erechtheion Caryatid
  • Lion from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  • Bust of Pericles
  • Aegina Treasure
  • Townley Caryatid
  • Bronze Statue of a Youth
  • Thalia, Muse of Comedy
  • Nereid Monument
  • Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa

Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory collections include some of the earliest objects made by humans over 2 million years ago, as well as prehistoric and Neolithic artefacts from across the world plus the art and archaeology of Europe from the earliest times to the present day. The collection includes a wide-ranging selection of clocks, watches and other timepieces with masterpieces from every period in the development of time-keeping.

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory collection covers the following periods:
  • Stone Age     (c. 3.4 million years BC – c. 2000 BC)
  • Bronze Age    (c. 3300 BC – c. 600 BC)
  • Iron Age    (c. 600 BC – c. 1st century AD)
  • Romano-British    (43 AD – 410 AD)
  • Early Mediaeval    (c. 4th century AD – c. 1000 AD)
  • Mediaeval    (c. 1000 AD – c. 1500 AD)
  • Renaissance to Modern    (c. 1500 AD – present)

Asia Collection

The  Asia collection has over 75,000 objects that cover the culture of the whole Asian continent from the Neolithic up to the present day. The collection includes objects initially owned by tribal cultures many of whose way of life has disappeared in the last century. Also, there is a unique collection of Japanese, Korean, paintings and calligraphy plus Chinese ceramics.

The Asia collection highlights include:

  • >Ritual bronzes
  • Ceramics
  • Buddhist statues
  • Calligraphy
  • Asian Sculptures
  • Bronze figures

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The British Museum houses a comprehensive collection of Ethnographic material from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, which represent the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Spanning thousands of years tells the history of humanity from three major continents and many rich and diverse cultures; the collecting of modern artefacts is ongoing.

Africa, Oceania and the Americas collection highlights include:

  • Aztec Double-Headed Serpent
  • Hoa Hakananai’a, a Moai from Easter Island
  • Hawaiian Chief’s Feathered Helmets
  • Bronze Heads from Ife
  • Benin Ivory Mask

The Department of Prints and Drawings holds the national collection of Western prints and drawings. Since its foundation in 1808, the prints and drawings collection has grown into a rich and representative collection of nearly 50,000 drawings and over two million prints. The selection of drawings covers the period from the 14th century to the present and includes works by the leading artists of the European schools.

Prints and Drawings Collection

The collection of prints covers the tradition of fine printmaking from its beginnings in the 15th century up to the present. There are also about a million British prints including more than 20,000 satires.

The collection includes Prints and Drawings by the following artist:

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Raphael
  • Michelangelo
  • Dürer
  • Peter Paul Rubens
  • Rembrandt
  • Goya
  • Hogarth
  • Turner

Your Visit to the British Museum

The British Museum is visited by over eight million people every year, and it is free to visit the permanent collections at the British Museum. Special Exhibits have a fee for entry however the vast majority of the museum is free.  Before your visit, please check the museum’s website to confirm your visit details.

Tips for the British Museum

Avoid Peak Times

Plan to visit the most famous objects of the museum at the first opening hour or during the late-night openings. Reserve the middle of the day for the less popular galleries. So see the Parthenon Sculptures or the Rosetta Stone first thing in the morning or during a late-night session.

Introductory Tours

The museum offers free tours and fee-based tours. Confirm availability via the website or at the information counter. There are also many private tours available depending on your interests. A tour is an excellent way to gain an introductory overview of the many collections.

Take multiple visits and breaks

Entry to the British Museum is free, so you do not need to see everything in just one visit. Spread your experience over multiple visits and take breaks for food and hydration. Reading this book during a tea or coffee break is a great way to refresh in between gallery visit.

Prepare in advance

Research the best underground tube location from your home base and how to get to the museum from the train station. No Underground tube station exits are not located close to the museum, so there are a few blocks to be walked. It is best to prepare in advance with a general idea of how to get to the museum using a map or a smartphone.

Use the Museum Map

A map with the general layout of the museum, descriptions for the essential galleries and highlight attractions within the museum is a useful aid. Maps are available at the inquiries desk and the bookshop.


Great Russell Street, London, United Kingdom.

Public transport access via “London Underground” or the Tube at the following Underground train station:

  • Goodge Street
  • Holborn
  • Tottenham Court Road
  • Russell Square

The British Museum

  • Museum:        British Museum
  • City:                London
  • Established:    1753
  • Location:         Great Russell Street, London, UK
  • Collection:      8 million objects
  • Visitors:          7 million annually

Demeter and Persephone - Pediment Sculptures of the Parthenon - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning at the British Museum

London is home to one of the world’s most famous museums, the British Museum. Covering a period of two million years of global human and cultural history it can become an overwhelming experience. The secret to finding meaning at the British Museum is to experience and enjoy one masterpiece at a time and accept that it would take a lifetime to appreciate all that the museum has to offer. A meaningful museum experience requires a mindful approach to paying full attention to the current immediate object you are exploring.

When you get tired of the crowds or become overwhelmed by the breadth of history and exhibits, visit The Parthenon Marbles to regain your balance. Walk deliberately and with deep and relaxing breaths to the east pediment sculptures, which presents a scene of the major ancient Greek gods and goddesses portrayed as if they were present during the birth of Athena. Slowly walk behind the statues to the two draped female figures seated on rectangular wooden chests.

These female figures represent Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Originally these sculptures were set high above into the Parthenon pediment. No one could see this back view except the Olympian Gods. These statues were visible only from the front. The rear sight was not designed to be accessible to mortals. You are privileged to be able to see this view. Let’s meditate on what only the Olympian Gods were meant to see.

Notice the beautiful and flowing folds of the tunics. The figures are lifelike ready to move or stand up or turn around and object to your mortal presence. Mother and daughter are united as one. Notice the beauty and nobility of the body. Imagine that you are on Mount Olympus watching history unfold as confidently as these ancient marbles. Reflect on what you can see beyond these statues as you look at the vast hall containing the Pathernon Mables.

In the ancient Greek religion and mythology, Demeter, Zeus’ sister, is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, she presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of earlier mythology that predated the Olympian Pantheon of Gods. The myth about these two figures is that Hades, God of the underworld abducted Demeter’s virgin daughter Persephone. Demeter was distraught and searched everywhere for her. Demeter was inconsolably preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons failed, living things stopped growing and began to die. Faced with extinction on earth, Zeus, the king of all the gods, sent his messenger, Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back to Demeter. Hades agreed to release her if she had not eaten anything while in Hades, unfortunately, Persephone had eaten the forbidden pomegranate seeds. This indiscretion condemned Persephone to Hades and the underworld for a certain number of months every year.

Every Spring, Demeter would make sure flowers bloomed, and crops grew, and the fields were green. Every Winter, when Persephone returned to the underworld, Demeter would ignore the plants and the flowers and let them die. Each Spring, Demeter would bring everything to life again, ready to welcome her daughter’s return.

Continuing to reflect on the two draped female figures we notice how close the two bodies are compared to the other characters in the pediment sculptures, highlighting the comfortable and familiar body language between Demeter and Persephone. The Myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone reminds us of the different kinds of love in the world. It reminds us that when someone we love is missing, the world feels like Winter. It tells us of the anticipation of reuniting with someone we love and how reunion feels like Spring.

What other reflections come to your mind when you meditate on these masterpieces from over two and a half thousand years ago and the culture of Ancient Greece?

These Parthenon sculptures capture the culture and spirit of the Golden Age of Athens. It was a culture that celebrated the beauty and heroism in life. We in modern times have many more opportunities and resources available than the ancient Athenians. Meditating on these sculptures allows us to reflect on the beauty in our lives and how we can bring more heroism and nobility to our lives.


“Real museums are places where
Time is transformed into Space.”

– Orhan Pamuk


Photo Credit: 1) JOM