History of the collection

The original collection of the British Museum included antiquities, coins and medals, natural history specimens and a large library collection. It now comprises over 8 million objects spanning the history of the world's cultures: from the stone tools of early man to twentieth century prints.

Founding collection

The British Museum's founding collection was the 71,000 books, antiquities and natural specimens bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753.

Two other collections were also brought under the care of the early Museum:

  • The Cottonian Library of books and manuscripts
  • The Harleian collection of manuscripts

Shoes collected by Sir Hans Sloane


Expanding the early collection

The original collection was divided into three:

  • Printed Books (including prints);
  • Manuscripts (including medals);
  • Natural and Artificial Productions (everything else).

In 1772, the first major collection of classical antiquities was added to the Museum when the Greek vase collection belonging to Sir William Hamilton was acquired.

Other notable objects acquired included the first ancient Egyptian mummy bequeathed to the Museum in 1756 as well as a number of ethnographic artefacts given to the Museum following Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages (17671770). This included a Tahitian mourner’s dress.

A number of more eccentric donations were also given to the Museum: the trunk of a tree gnawed by a beaver (1760), a stone resembling a petrified loaf (1760) and a live tortoise from North America (1765).

The Hunt Krater from the Hamilton collection

Early to mid nineteenth century: classical antiquities

Interest in the classical antiquities determined how the collection developed during the beginning of the nineteenth century.

A number of high profile classical antiquity acquisitions were made such as the Rosetta Stone (1802) and the Townley collection of classical sculpture, including the ‘Discobolos’ statue and the bust of a young woman ‘Clytie’ (1805).

The importance of antiquities was recognised when the Department of Antiquities was founded in 1807.

Throughout the century, more classical antiquities became part of the collection including sculptures from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae (1815), the Parthenon sculptures (1816), the Nereid monument (1842) and the remains of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos

During the mid-nineteenth century interest grew in the Middle East. In 1825 the Western Asiatic collection was begun, consisting of a collection of manuscripts, medals and antiquities ‘illustrative of countries situated on the Euphrates and Tigris’.

In the 1850s, the first stone sculptures arrived at the Museum from excavations carried out at the Nimrud site in the Middle East.

One of the first arrivals was the Great winged bull, although it nearly did not make to Bloomsbury. The party bringing the sculpture back was ambushed en route by a band of robbers. A mark from a musket ball fired during the skirmish is still visible on the statue.

In 1860, the Department of Antiquities was divided into three new departments which reflected the new priorities of the collection: Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals, Oriental Antiquities.

Rosetta Stone

Late nineteenth century: British and medieval antiquities

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift in the focus of acquisitions.

After growing pressure from archaeological groups wanting more respect to be given to national antiquities, the Museum established a position of responsibility for British and Medieval material.

The first person appointed was the 25-year-old Augustus Wollaston Franks (later Sir), who laid the foundations for the Museum’s current departments.

Not only did Franks increase the British and Medieval antiquities held by the Museum, but he also added prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and artefacts.

Objects Franks was responsible for acquiring included a unique whalebone casket from Northumbria (1867), the Royal Gold Cup (1892) and 10,000 items from the Christy collection of prehistory and ethnography, including a collection of Mexican turquoise masks.

On his death in 1897, Franks bequeathed his own personal collection to the Museum. It included the magnificent Oxus Treasure.

The 1880s saw the first major break up of the collection, when the natural history material was moved to a separate building in South Kensington. This was to become the Natural History Museum.

Royal Gold Cup

Twentieth century: developing today's collection

The twentieth century saw the reorganisation of the Museum’s collection and the opening of a number of new galleries in which to display the collection to visitors.

A key development following the end of the First World War, was the creation of the research laboratory in 1920.

Its remit was to report on the condition of objects and to assist in their restoration and preservation. This department was created after many of the items in the collection were found to have deteriorated during their wartime storage.

A number of key archaeological finds were discovered during the twentieth century. Abroad, a series of graves known as The Royal Cemetery, were discovered on an expedition to Ur.

Meanwhile in Britain the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo was discovered (1938). The finds were presented to the Museum in 1939.

In 1997, the collection was again divided with the library departments leaving the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.

Sutton Hoo helmet

Collecting for the future

The Museum is committed to sustaining and improving the breadth of its collection for the benefit of people today and in the future. Aided by gifts and funding from public bodies and private individuals the Museum is able to continue to build its collection.

Alongside antiquities, it is crucial for the Museum to collect contemporary objects. Building upon the broad range of material in the Museum’s historical collections, these modern works derive from all parts of the world and document social, political, spiritual, economic, artistic and technological change.

Creating links between the present and the past, contemporary objects allow the Museum to continue to tell the story of world cultures for future generations.

Recent contemporary acquisitions and bequests include:

Over two hundred Japanese photobooks dating from 1945 to 2000
These were acquired with the help of the Friends of the British Museum. Three of them were the focus of the display Reflecting on modern Japan: Photobooks from the post-war period.

La Bouche du Roi
A  thought-provoking art work by the artist Romuald Hazoumé. It was acquired in 2007, with support from the Art Fund and the British Museum Friends, to mark the bicentenary of the Parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Following its display at the Museum, La Bouche du Roi toured the UK from 2 June 2007 – 31 May 2009.

A group of art medals by leading international artists
These new medals were commissioned by the British Art Medal Trust and presented to the British Museum. They will be displayed in the exhibition Medals of Dishonour from 25 June – 27 September 2009.

Medal Of Dishonour, 2007 © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

History of the departments

Images from top:

  • Shoes collected by Sir Hans Sloane
  • The Hunt Krater vase, Greek, about 575-550 BC, from the Hamilton collection
  • Rosetta Stone, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 196 BC
  • The Royal Gold Cup, Paris, medieval, around AD 1370-80
  • Helmet from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD
  • Medal Of Dishonour, 2007 © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov