London's British Museum houses one of the world's largest collections of natural history and cultural artifacts - over 13 million items. Established in 1753, the museum's collection includes items from all continents and most countries. As with all of Britain's national museums, admission is free.
The British Museum was founded in 1753 by Sir Hans Sloane as a repository for the country's many acquired national history artifacts. The collection moved to its current site on Russell Square, to the donated Montagu Mansion, in 1759. The present, Greek Revival structure designed by Sir Robert Smirke, replaced Montagu House in 1845.
The British Museum's permanent collection is of staggering size. It includes over 13 million objects, including the largest group of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. Highlights of the museum's collection include the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles from Greece (see more about these below), the mummy of Queen Cleopatra, a fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx from Giza, King George's personal library of over 65,000 volumes, an extensive collection of Durer drawings and prints, and a basalt moai (statue) from Easter Island.
As with the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Louvre Museum in Paris, it is impossible to see all of the museum in one day - or even two days. It is best to choose a period or a region and concentrate on that piece of the collection.
In addition to the huge permanent collection, the British Museum hosts a regular schedule of temporary exhibits. Recent showings have included "The Treasures of King Tutankhamen" and "The Voices of Bengal." There is usually an admission charge for the temporary exhibits.
The Elgin Marbles
Perhaps the most controversial items in the British Museum collection are the Elgin Marbles, the frescos taken from the Acropolis in the early 19th century. These sculptures and the frieze, which once adorned the walls of the Parthenon, were removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and transported to Britain at his own expense in 1806. The marbles, which if lined up together would extend over one kilometer in length, were immediately put on display at the British Museum. In 1936, the special Duveen Gallery was opened just for the Marbles.
At the time the Marbles were removed, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and although Bruce obtained permission to export them from the Sultan, the move has been controversial, almost from the beginning. At the time, many British notables, including the poet, Lord Byron, called for them to be returned to Greece.
Today, the Greek government has asked repeatedly for them to be brought back and has even begun construction of a new facility in which to house them. The British Museum, however, maintains that they have the best conditions for the fragile antiquities. The debate continues.
Visiting the British Museum
The museum is open 360 days a year (except for Good Friday, January 1, and 24-26 December). Admission is free. The museum is open Sunday - Wednesday from 9am to 6pm and on Thursday - Saturday from 9am to 11pm.
A variety of tours, both escorted and via audio-tape, are offered. Tours range from £3.50 to £8.
Visitors will find three cafes and restaurants, including the elegant Court Restaurant, overlooking the museum's historic Reading Room. Other facilities include a bookstore, children's shop, and souvenir and guide store.
The British Museum
Great Russell St.
London WC1B 3DG
Tel: 44 020 7323-8299