Ethnographical Galleries (view of Asia Section), British Museum, London. Photograph by Donald Macbeth, 1908.

Collecting histories

The British Museum's collection has grown in many ways over the past three centuries, starting with the 1753 Act of Parliament which purchased for the public Sir Hans Sloane's collection of over 80,000 items. 

Below are some examples of the myriad ways in which objects have entered the collection, from excavation to purchase, donations or commissions from individuals, conflict and colonial activity. 

Collecting

Research into the history of the collection as a whole, and of individual objects in it, is ongoing. This involves object-based and archival research both in the British Museum itself and elsewhere. Many objects have been a part of the collection for hundreds of years so it's not always possible to know their full history.

Some ways in which objects entered the British Museum are no longer current or acceptable, though others remain familiar. Objects continue to be collected to ensure the collection remains relevant and representative today and into the future. 

If you're interested in researching the collections of the British Museum you can use our study facilities where you can examine objects, archives, and use our libraries. Alternatively, look at Collection online which records all the ongoing research we do into the history and provenance of all the objects in the Museum.

Donations and bequests

Donations and bequests

A significant proportion of the British Museum's collection was donated or bequeathed to the Museum, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For example, The Sutton Hoo collection was generously donated by Edith Pretty, the landowner of the site where the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial was found in 1939.

Donations and bequests

The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of nearly 300 objects, left to the Museum in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild.

It consists of exceptionally important medieval and Renaissance pieces and is on display in Room 2a.

Further gifts continue to this day. In 2003, the modern prints and drawing collection of the Evening Standard's film critic Alexander Walker were given in a bequest and included important works by Matisse, Bridget Riley and many other 20th century artists.

Excavations

The British Museum has acquired many objects from archaeological digs across the world. Excavations continue to this day, from the Caribbean to the Nile Valley, with modern archaeology focusing on answering research questions that provide context to the British Museum collections.

Austen Henry Layard excavated a number of major Assyrian sites in what is now Iraq between 1845 and 1851, largely funded by the wealthy British Ambassador to Constantinople Stratford Canning. He was assisted by Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian born in Mosul (Iraq), who then continued the excavations when Layard left to take up a diplomatic career. Canning was keen to see Assyrian sculptures displayed in Britain and he obtained authorisation from the Ottoman government to export some of the finds to London, while other finds remained in situ in Iraq. 

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many governments practised partage: where a part of the finds from excavations would stay in the country, with the remainder donated to the foreign excavating organisation. Between 1884 and 1886, renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie excavated the Greek trading centre of Naukratis in the Egyptian Nile Delta, on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Over 18,000 objects were discovered and shared between the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and 70 other countries, including nearly 8,000 that came to the British Museum. An ongoing major research project combines a re-assessment of these objects and new fieldwork.

The British Museum continues to participate in excavations across the globe in collaboration with partners in host countries. Over the last four years archaeologists from the Museum have worked with colleagues in Iraq on two sites, Tello in southern Iraq and Darband-i-Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan, as part of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme.

Colonial government and missionary activity

The British Empire had a significant impact on the collection of the British Museum, as officials, diplomats, missionaries and travellers acquired both large and small collections in the countries under British rule where they visited or lived. 

The collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), developed while he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java in the 1810s, came to the Museum through his heirs and descendants. Research into how, where, and why he collected has enabled modern collaborative research and displays with colleagues in Indonesia and Singapore. 

Conflict

The British Museum acknowledges the difficult histories of some of its collections, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired such as through military action and subsequent looting. The British Museum is actively engaged in re-examining the acquisition histories of such collections and caring for them with appropriate respect, in close dialogue with colleagues and partners from countries around the world.

One such example is the Benin Bronzes. Following a punitive raid on Benin City in 1897, the city was systematically plundered by British troops. There are over 900 objects from Benin in the Museum's collection, some of which entered the collection shortly after the punitive raid, but others up to the 1950s, mostly through donations by collectors. The Museum is engaged in dialogue with museum colleagues in Benin City and Nigeria regarding these objects.

The British Museum purchased the handscroll painting Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (known as the Admonitions Scroll) from Captain Clarence Johnson (1870–1937) in 1903. Johnson was sent to Beijing in 1900 with the British Indian Army during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising which was suppressed by a force comprised of eight nations. It's not certain how he acquired the painting which was in the Forbidden City, Beijing during the 18th century but widespread looting followed the suppression.

Treasure

Treasure

Many important objects in the Museum's collection from the British Isles were acquired as a result of laws related to buried treasure. For centuries, valuable metal items hidden or buried by their owners for later recovery were deemed to be the property of the Crown.

The law was changed in England and Wales in 1996 to encourage finders of ancient items over 300 years old to report their discoveries through the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Purchase and commissions

Over the years The British Museum has bought large parts of its collection from individual collectors, dealers and the commercial market, developing and expanding upon the founding collections.

An example was the collection of Edward Hawkins who worked as a curator for over 35 years in the 19th century. On his retirement in 1860, the museum purchased his significant collection of medals, one of the earliest being a 1524 medal of Henry VIII.

Purchase and commissions

The British Museum is still actively collecting in the 21st century to ensure the collection remains relevant. We purchase objects, and also commission works from artists including those working in indigenous traditions or in contemporary idioms exploring contemporary issues. 

In 2015 the Museum commissioned two Moko Jumbie figures from British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové. They were purchased with generous funding from the Miles Morland Foundation (MMF) and with additional contributions from the Vigo Gallery (representing Zak Ové) and the artist. 

Purchases and commissions

In 2019 the Museum purchased the set of 'Cowboy Angels' woodcuts by British artist Yinke Shonibare with the aid of the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation. They're the first work by the artist to enter the Museum's collection.

Purchases and commissions

Known as the Lampedusa Cross, and acquired in 2015, this object was made by Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter on the Italian island of Lampedusa. A boat sank off the coast in October 2013, with only 151 of the 500 African refugees on board surviving. The cross is made of two timbers from the boat.