A treasure house in every imaginable sense - The British Museum


"There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, doll, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the culture of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one on the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building."

(Sir William Empson, "Homage to the British Museum")

15 January 1748: When Sir Hans Sloane from County Down died at the age of 92 in 1753, he had not only - by accident - invented milk chocolate but left King George II his “cabinet of curiosities”, a variety of more than 70.000 objects, 40.000 of them rare books. In June, the king gave his formal assent to the foundation of a museum, clubbed together with the Cottonian and the Royal Library. A year later, Montagu House, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, was acquired and today, 265 years ago, the British Museum opened its gates to the public for the first time.


The British Museum when it became the world's greatest construction site in 1825 under the architect Sir Robert Smirke. To the left is Montagu House and Townley Gallery, the new west wing is seen to the right.



The original idea of an universal museum where everything was shown from stuffed giraffes to the only surviving manuscript of "Beowulf" gradually changed to a collection that numbers today over 8 million works dedicated to human history and culture, one of the largest of its kind that ever existed.

As the expansion of the British Empire made the place more or less a "treasure house" for soldiers and adventurers who donated art treasures from all over the world, criticism increased during the last decades to return the artefacts to their places of origin. On the other hand, the British Museum provided a safe and easily accessible haven for these objects to be admired and studied by the public as well as dedicated scientists since 1759.