The British Museum

The British Museum, consisting of the national museum of archaeology and ethnography and the national library, is the richest of its kind in the world. The museum was founded in 1753 by an act of Parliament which set up a body of Trustees. Its nucleus was formed by the priceless collections of Sir Robert Cotton, whose manuscripts had been acquired at the end of the 17th century and stored away in vaults at Westminster, and Sir Hans Sloane, who left his enormously varied collection to the nation upon his death in 1753. To this diverse collection of manuscripts, works of art, antiquities, and natural history items the Trustees added the extensive library accumulated by the Har-leys, Earls of Oxford. A copy of every book published in the country has to be presented free to the museum.

The act of Parliament setting up the museum provided for a public lottery to be held to raise funds for housing and maintaining these collections. The lottery raised enough cash for the Trustees to purchase a 17th century building called Montagu House and in 1759 the museum was opened to the public. Montagu House proved woefully inadequate for the museum's constantly expanding collections, and by the early 19th century temporary buildings had been erected to accommodate many of the larger exhibits.

In 1823 Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a permanent extension and produced plans for the complete replacement of Montagu House. Between 1823 and 1852 the old structure was pulled down and the present museum took its place. In 1857 the famous Reading Room was built.
It is impossible to list here more than a tiny fraction of the wealth of objects that the museum contains. Visitors are advised to equip themselves with a guide book and select a number of specific exhibits that can be comfortably looked at in the time available.

The superb Elgin Marbles are housed in the Duveen Gallery and should not be missed. The collection is named after the seventh Earl of Elgin, who sold it to the nation at a considerable loss. The Elgin Marbles are sculptures from the Greek Parthenon in Athens. They were brought back to Britain in 1802. They show the birth of Athena and processions to honour her. According to legend she was born out of the head of God Zeus, when another God hit him with a hammer to get rid of his headache. The collection includes brilliantly executed statues, friezes, and stonework.

The museum is famous for Egyptian mummies. The Egyptians thought that life would continue after death, so they preserved the body for the dead person's spirit to live in. It was buried with treasure, household goods and even servants to use in the next life. You can see mummies of kings, queens and their servants.

The Sutton Hoo treasure comes from the burial site of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon King in Suffolk. He was buried in a complete ship along with a rich treasure hoard to use in the afterlife. Among the many items on show are drinking horns, beautiful gold buckles and the king's helmet. It was been restored from over 500 pieces.

In the centre of the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery is the Rosetta Stone, which dates from 195 BC and inscribed with the texts which enabled scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone was the key to understand ancient Egyptian picture writing. It came from an old wall in the village of Rosetta in Egypt. Its inscription is repeated in three different types of writing — in hieroglyphs, in another form of Egyptian writing and in Greek. By translating the Greek scholars were able to work out the hieroglyphs and begin to understand the ancient Egyptian language. The writing tells of battles of the time.

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