British Museum
History, Art Collection Highlights: Antiquities.

The British Museum, London.

National Gallery London
National Portrait Gallery
Tate Gallery
Courtauld Gallery
British Royal Art Collection
Saatchi Gallery
Victoria & Albert Museum

British Museum (Est 1753)


Museum Architecture
Permanent Collection Highlights
- Department of Prehistory and Europe
- Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
- Department of Greece and Rome
- Department of the Middle East
- Department of Asia
- Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Department of Prints and Drawings
Contact Details

Art Museums in Europe.
Louvre Museum
Hermitage St Petersburg

Before visiting the
British Museum, see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art.


The British Museum, established in 1753, is one of the greatest art museums in the world. Its permanent collection contains more than 8 million antiquities and cultural art objects which illustrate the history of human civilization from Paleolithic culture onwards. A treasury of different types of art, it includes world-renowned examples of Sumerian Art (c.4500-2270 BCE) and Assyrian art (1500-612 BCE), and of course Egyptian and Greek art, as well as African, Asian and Pre-Columbian art (1200 BCE-1535 CE). There is a large collection of works on paper, including priceless Renaissance drawings, famous items of goldmithing, as well as Jewellery art from Antiquity onwards. After many extensions and refurbishments, the museum now occupies a total of 990,000 square feet, with over 100 galleries, making it one of the largest museums in the world. Financed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, entrance to the permanent collection of the British Museum is free of charge.


The museum first opened its doors in January 1759, due largely to the generosity of the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who bequeathed a collection of some 71,000 items to the nation. It was this collection - consisting of ancient art, prints, drawings, 40,000 books, along with an extensive collection of scientific specimens - that formed the core of the museum's inaugural display. To this was added the contents of the Cottonian Library, the Harleian library, and the Royal Library. Located from the outset on its present site in Great Russell Street, the museum has since undergone huge expansion, and in 1887 opened its first sub-branch - the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Other branches include Blythe House in West Kensington, and Franks House in East London.

Museum Architecture

Designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) during the period 1823-47, the British Museum is an example of neoclassical architecture - specifically the revival style of Greek architecture - modelled on the temple of Athena Polias at Priene, using Portland stone and 44 columns of the Ionic order. The large pediment over the main entrance features sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation. In 1854-7, Robert Smirke's architect brother, Sydney, added the Round Reading Room, which - at about 140 feet in diameter - was the second widest dome in the world, after the Pantheon in Rome. Located in the centre of the museum is a glass-roofed square, designed by engineers Buro Happold and architects Foster and Partners, known as the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. Opened in December 2000, it is the largest covered square in Europe. The museum's latest extension, due for completion in 2013, is the museum's new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre.

Permanent Collection Highlights

The permanent collection of the British Museum numbers approximately 8 million items, of which less than 1 percent (50,000 objects) is on public display. Its most important curatorial departments include the following:

• Department of Prehistory and Europe
• Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
• Department of Greece and Rome
• Department of the Middle East
• Department of Asia
• Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
• Department of Prints and Drawings

Department of Prehistory and Europe

This collection of prehistoric art features some of the earliest art and other artifacts made by humans up to two million years ago, including European Stone Age art and archeology from the Paleolithic era to the present. It also illustrates the history of Britain under Roman rule. Its collections of early Christian art and Anglo-Saxon and European Medieval art (300-1100) rank among the best in the world. Highlights include: The Swimming Reindeer (c.11,000 BCE); The Ain Sakhri lovers (c.9000 BCE); The Sutton Hoo treasure (6th/7th century), the walrus ivory Lewis Chessmen (12th-century), the Royal [Saint Agnes] Gold Cup (c.1370 CE); and the Holy Thorn Reliquary (1390s). For background, see: Prehistoric Sculpture (c.230,000 - 2,500 BCE).

Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Up until 2001, this collection - the largest of its kind in the world - contained more than 100,000 artifacts, from all the cultures of the Nile valley, spanning over one hundred centuries from 10,000 BCE to 1100 CE. Then in 2001, the entire 6-million item Wendorf Collection of early antiquities from Egypt and the Sudan was donated to the British Museum (almost doubling the latter's total collection), transforming this department. Highlights of the department include: the Rosetta Stone (c.200 BCE) an ancient Egyptian stone bearing inscriptions whose decoding greatly furthered our understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics; several important pieces of Egyptian sculpture, such as the Colossal bust of Ramesses II (1250 BCE), and the red granite statue of Amenhotep III (1350 BCE). Egyptian megaliths are represented by the Obelisk of Pharaoh Nectanebo II (350 BCE). See also: Ancient Egyptian Architecture (c.3,000 BCE - 200 CE) and Egyptian Pyramids (c.2650-1800 BCE). For painting, see: Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE).

Department of Greece and Rome

The British Museum's classical department comprises an extensive collection of Greek mainland and Aegean art - notably Greek Pottery (c.3200 BCE onwards), Greek Sculpture, including works (like the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon (c.430 BCE), from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (353-350 BCE), and from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos - as well as Minoan art (c.1400-1200 BCE). The Department also has a wide collection of Etruscan art (c.750 BCE onwards) as well as Roman Art (glass and silver). Highlights include: The Strangford Apollo of Anafi (c.600-580 BCE); part of the Amazonomachy frieze from the Parthenon; and the statue of the Discus-thrower (Discobolos). See: Sculpture of Ancient Greece (background), High Classical Greek Sculpture (480-450 BCE), and the Greek sculptor Phidias (488-431 BCE).

Department of the Middle East

The Middle Eastern collection, containing a total of 330,000 works, is the largest and most important collection of Mesopotamian art outside Iraq. It features a huge display of Mesopotamian sculpture, including relief sculpture and ivory carving, as well as ancient pottery and other antiquities of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian cultures from the biblical cities of Khorsabad, Nimrud, Nineveh and Ur. They are showcased in 13 galleries. Ancient Persian art is also well represented, as are the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Syria, Palestine and Phoenicia. The department's collection of Islamic art (40,000 items of pottery, paintings, glass, tiles, metalwork) compares favourably with collections in some of the finest of Museums of Islamic Art. Highlights include: The Dying Lion from the North-Palace of Ashurbanipal; The Flood Tablet (7th century BCE), inscribed with a section of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh; the gold-leaf and lapis lazuli Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE); the Oxus Gold Chariot (c.400 BCE), part of the Oxus Treasure the most important extant collection of Achaemenid metalwork; the Bimaran Reliquary (c.50 CE) an Afghanistan gold container, decorated with the earliest surving images of Buddha. See also: Jewish art.

Department of Asia

This department holds more than 75,000 objects reflecting the culture of the whole Asian continent, from the Neolithic Age to the present day. It features Painting and Sculpture From India; an outstanding collection of Chinese art, including ink-and-wash painting, numerous examples of Chinese lacquerware, ceremonial bronzes, calligraphy, jade, porcelain, Chinese pottery and other types of applied art; and the largest holding of early Japanese art in the Western world.

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

The British Museum holds one of the world's largest collections (350,000 objects) of Ethnographic tribal art - notably works of African Art, including the celebrated Benin Bronzes (16th/17th century) and other important examples of African sculpture - as well as important items of Oceanic art from across the Pacific. In the Americas collection, Inca, Aztec, Maya and other early cultures are well represented. See also: American Indian Art (1000 BCE-1900) and Aboriginal Art from Australasia.

Department of Prints and Drawings

This department houses the national collection of printmaking and drawing, containing some 50,000 drawings and 2 million prints, which makes it one of the top collections in the world, alongside the Albertina, the Hermitage and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It features chalk drawings by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Rembrandt, among many others; a unique collection of works by Albrecht Durer, featuring numerous examples of his engraving (99), etching (6) and most of his woodcuts (346); after this comes Victorian art, with over 30,000 drawings and watercolour paintings by British artists including JMW Turner, John Constable and other artists of the time. Particular highlights include: Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon) (c.1499) by Leonardo; Studies of a reclining male nude, for Adam in 'The Creation of Man fresco' in the Sistine Chapel (c.1511) by Michelangelo; Study of a Sibyl (c.1512) by Raphael; Drowning of the Pharaoh's Host in the Red Sea (1515–17) by Titian; Epifania (1550-3) Michelangelo's only surviving large scale cartoon; The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross (1634–35) by Rembrandt.

Contact Details

The British Museum
Great Russell St,
London WC1B 3DG
United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 20 7323 8299

• For more details about the world's great cultural museums and galleries, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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