Visitors in the Great Court

29 things you (probably) didn't know about the British Museum

Publication date: 14 January 2017

You may think you know the British Museum, but there's always more to discover.

Here, we highlight a few secrets to delight and surprise even the most enthusiastic Museum fan. Never afraid to jump on a bandwagon, we've compiled a handy list of some of the weird and wonderful facts that make the British Museum unique. Maybe you knew it all already? If you did, you probably work here already...

Things 1-7

1. The British Museum is older than the USA

Sutton Nicholls (fl. 1689–1729), Montague House. Etching and engraving, 1728.
Sutton Nicholls (fl. 1689–1729), Montague House. Etching and engraving, 1728.

The British Museum is the world's oldest national public museum. Founded in 1753, it opened its doors in 1759, 17 years before the Declaration of Independence. It was free to all 'studious and curious persons', and it's still free today (but a few other things have changed).

2. The Museum had its own tube station for over 30 years

Composite of three photo showing exterior of tube, platform and construction workers

MIND THE GAP! That's the gap between when there was a British Museum tube station and now. The photos above (courtesy of London Transport Museum) show the entrance to the Museum's underground station in 1921, some gentlemen waiting on the platform in 1903 (with some fabulous hats!) and its construction in 1898. The station opened in 1900, but was closed in September 1933 when the new Holborn station opened, less than 100 yards away.

3. The Museum gate was once guarded by a cat named Mike

Black and white photo of Mike the cat with the words, 'Mike expressing his opinion of a dog he had just driven out of the Courtyard of the Museum' written underneath

No, not an elaborate April Fool. Many cats have lived at the Museum over the years. Perhaps the most famous was Mike, who guarded the main gate between 1909 and 1929. When he died, his obituary appeared in the Evening Standard and TIME magazine. The picture above shows Mike in action.

4. London's landmarks could have been very different indeed

The British Museum was founded in 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane left his collection to the nation. But before the Museum could open to the public, a suitable site needed to be purchased. One of the locations considered was a place called Buckingham House, which was later rebuilt as Buckingham Palace! But the Trustees agreed instead to move into Montague House, the site of the current Museum, and the rest is history. Or should that be geography?

5. The British Museum got so big it had to create two other national institutions to cope

Composite of two black and white photos, on the left the mastodon skeleton on the right, the interior of the Round Reading Room
Left: a mastodon skeleton on display, before the move to South Kensington. Right: the Round Reading Room, home of the British Library until 1997.

Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum's collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington. London's Natural History Museum was still officially known as the British Museum (Natural History) until 1992, despite being legally separate since 1963. Similarly, the founding collection contained a huge number of manuscripts and books. The collection continued to grow and grow, until the British Library became a separate institution in 1973. Even then, it remained in the Bloomsbury site until 1997 when it moved to the new building on Euston Road.

6. The Museum was one of the first buildings to use electric lighting

Print from a periodical featuring a view of the Egyptian sculpture gallery with new artificial lighting, entitled 'Electric lighting of the British Museum' and dated 1890.
Print from a periodical featuring a view of the Egyptian sculpture gallery with new artificial lighting,1890.

Until the late 19th century the Museum was lit by natural daylight. Candles, oil lamps and gas lamps were not used in the galleries for fear of fire, and so the Museum was often forced to close early due to poor light in winter or during a London fog. As such, the Museum became one of the first public buildings in London to install electric lighting. In 1879 experimental electric lighting was provided in the Front Hall, the Reading Room and in the Forecourt. Although this early lighting system was unreliable, the Reading Room was able to stay open until 19.00 during the winter. Within 10 years an improved system had been extended to most of the public areas.

The engraving above was first published in the Illustrated London News, February 1890.

7. The Museum's collection was evacuated during the Second World War

Black and white photo of roof of British Museum with bomb damage

Planning for the evacuation of the British Museum's treasures began in 1933 – a surprisingly early date, although many had begun to realise the dangers ahead. In 1938, the Museum and the National Library of Wales started work on a bombproof tunnel at Aberystwyth, and on Wednesday 23 August 1939, the Home Office gave orders to begin the evacuation. Heavy sculptures that could not make the journey were housed in the Aldwych Tube tunnel. You can find out more about the evacuation and its aftermath in the podcast episodes below.

Not everything was saved, however, and the Museum was struck by a number of incendiaries between September 1940 and May 1941. An air raid on 10 May 1941 resulted in the loss of some 250,000 books, the water from the fire hoses ruining most of those that survived the flames.

Things 8-24

8. The Museum has been a popular film set

Movie poster showing film cast and title with London sites in background

With 15 films to its name, the British Museum has a recognisable role in the movie world. The cameras first arrived in 1921 for The Wakefield Cause, and were here again in 1973 for Hollywood classic, Day of the Jackal. In 1929, Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail was shot in the Museum, becoming one of the first movies to feature the Schüfftan process – a special effect that uses mirrors to make it appear that the actors are on a vast set. You can see it in action in the clip below.

Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) - The British Museum pursuit scene

Younger readers might remember its appearance in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014). Sian Toogood was broadcast manager on the film: 'The limitations of what is possible within the British Museum meant that Fox only filmed here for three nights, from the moment the gates closed to the public to 07.00 the next day. They had 200 crew on site, a 40-tonne crane, helium balloon lights so large they couldn't fit through the front door when inflated, and a myriad of other lights, cameras and stands. A visual effects crew also 3D-scanned key spaces and dozens of objects to populate the film. Then there were the horses (outside) and the monkeys (inside).' Each year around 50 film crews come to film everything from documentaries to music videos, so Night at the Museum won't be the last time we see the Museum on the silver screen.

9. The British Museum is the largest indoor space on Google Street View

View of the Great Court on Google Street View with thumbnails of objects underneath

In November 2015 the Museum broke a modern record. Mapped out and presented digitally, the Museum became the largest indoor space on Google Street View. You can explore it at your leisure from the comfort of your own home (or the discomfort of the bus, or anywhere really), plus there are stories of thousands of highlight objects at the Google Cultural Institute.

10. The railings aren't black, they're...

Railings on Great Russell Street, British Museum behind
Railings on Great Russell Street.

...any guesses? They're actually painted a colour called 'invisible green', used on many historic railings throughout London.

11. The Museum once had a 'Cabinet of Obscene Objects'

Others have called it the British Museum's 'porn room', but the title it was originally given is a little more salubrious: the Secretum. Opened in 1865, following the publication of the Obscene Publications Act (1857), the Secretum contained around 200 objects, labelled (possibly with the curator's tongue firmly in cheek?) as 'abominable monuments to human licentiousness'. Anyone who wanted to get in for an afternoon of fun and games serious study required a special permit. Strictly for gentlemen only, one needed to demonstrate 'mature years and sound morals' in order to qualify. Details on how this was decided have not been recorded... The obvious questions for many people reading this will be, 'where is it now and how do I apply for a permit?' Alas, the Secretum is no more, but don't despair, as the objects are now dispersed throughout the Museum. As well as many of them being proudly on display today, you can still view some of the Secretum's contents in the most obvious place: the internet. We don't even check if you're of mature years and sound morals anymore, so anyone can check out things like this satyr and goat, this Indian temple frieze carved with human figures engaged in a variety of sexual acts or this lamp featuring a naked woman sitting on a huge human phallus on the back of a crocodile. As you do.

12. A hundred years ago you had to be a cross between Wikipedia and Google to work here

Two printed pages of an examination from 1912 for prospective employees
Examination from 1912 for prospective employees.

Back in 1912, staff at the British Museum had to sit a written entrance exam, as staff were part of the Civil Service. However, if you wanted to work in, say, Prints and Drawings, you had to answer additional questions like 'What was the relationship between the art of the goldsmith and that of the engraver, in Germany, during the 16th century?' and 'What do you know of the Iconography of Anthony Van Dyck?' To work in Coins and Medals, tasks included 'Give a brief account, with periods and types, of the coins of one of the following cities:– Nola, Poseidonia, Terina' and 'Trace in the coinage of South Italy the influence exerted by either the kings of Epirus or Hannibal.' We haven't asked the current curators if they can answer these, but they'd probably give it a good go. Or say 'not my period'...

13. Banksy had an unofficial exhibit at the Museum

In May 2005, world-famous street artist Banksy snuck a rock depicting a caveman with a shopping trolley into the British Museum. It stayed there for two days before anyone noticed it. He even added his own sign, saying the cave painting showed, 'early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds'. It has since disappeared, and nobody's sure where it is today!

14. A British Museum snail holds the record for longest suspended animation

Yep, you read that correctly. Of all the things in the British Museum that could come back to life, the world record for the longest period spent 'dead' before reanimation goes to a humble snail. Donated in 1846 (so when the natural history collection was still in Bloomsbury), the snail belonged to a collection put together in Egypt and Greece. They were stuck onto cardboard for display, and remained there for four years until the zoologist William Baird noticed that one of them had started producing a strange mucus-like membrane in an apparent attempt to stop itself drying out. The snail was quickly rescued from its papery captivity and rehoused with a living partner, where it lived until its (actual) death in 1852.

15. Possibly the world's oldest customer complaint is on display

Clay tablet; letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and about misdirection and delay of a further delivery

This Mesopotamian tablet was written by a chap called Nanni nearly 4,000 years ago, clearly upset with the customer service he received from his copper merchant, Ea-Nasir. He writes:

When you came, you said to me as follows: 'I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.' You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots that were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: 'If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!' What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt... Take cognisance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

It's written in cuneiform, a type of writing that means 'wedge-shaped' as it was created by impressing a stylus into clay, and then firing it so it hardened. It required a bit more effort than an angry comment on a blog...

16. The Museum is still acquiring

Two photos. On the left, a wooden cross made from pieces of a boat. On the right, upper portion of an alabaster figure of the Virgin and Child
Left: The Lampedusa Cross acquired in 2015. Right: detail of the alabaster Virgin and Child, made in the Midlands, c. 1360s.

It's easy to assume that museums only house ancient objects, but in fact acquisitions (of ancient and modern objects) continue to be made all the time. A poignant modern acquisition in 2015 was a Lampedusa Cross, donated by an Italian carpenter who made it with pieces of wood from the wreckage of boats used by refugees trying to reach Europe. For something a little older, in December 2016, the Museum acquired a beautiful medieval alabaster of the Virgin and Child, made in the Midlands in the 1360s.

17. The Japanese Galleries house a replica of a traditional tea house...

Replica of the interior of a traditional tea house within the gallery

Twice a month, the Urasenke Foundation hold a Japanese tea ceremony. It's free to watch, so keep an eye out for timings if you want to experience something a bit unusual in the centre of London.

18. ...and the Korea Gallery contains a full-size replica of a scholar's study, known as a sarangbang.

Photo of the Museum’s reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang within the Korea gallery.
The sarangbang (scholar's study) in Room 67.

The reconstruction of a traditional Korean scholar’s study was built by contemporary Korean master craftsmen in the summer of 2000. It displays traditional Korean architecture. Please try not to set off the alarm when you look at it!

19. The British Museum is the UK's most popular attraction

With around 6.5 million annual visitors, the British Museum is the UK's most visited attraction, more popular than the Tate, the National Gallery and even Blackpool Pleasure Beach!

20. The Museum loans more objects than any other institution in the world

As a museum of the world, for the world, it's vitally important that the objects in the collection are shared with as many people as possible. In 2015/16 over 5,000 objects were sent across the globe on loan, making us the most sharing museum on the planet.

21. The most searched-for things on our website are not the opening hours

Painted handscroll depicting couple kissing passionately
Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), detail of Sode No Maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve). Painted handscroll, c. 1785.

In fact, they are 'Egypt' (53,000 annual searches), which isn't too surprising given the amount of mummies residing at the British Museum, and 'shunga'. Perhaps this is equally unsurprising as 'shunga' is an explicit and beautifully detailed Japanese erotic art form, and was the subject of a special exhibition in 2014. The 40,000 annual searches for shunga seem to prove that there are plenty of Nipponophiles out there (that's 'lovers of Japan or Japanese culture', for those of you sniggering at the back).

22. The Museum's pediment depicts 'the Progress of Civilisation'

The triangular thing over the columns of the Main entrance is an architectural feature known as a pediment. It shows the development of 'mankind' in eight stages – quite an old-fashioned idea now, but then it was designed and built in the 1850s. As you look at it, the left hand side shows the creation of man as he emerges from a rock as an ignorant being. He meets the next character, the Angel of Enlightenment who is holding the Lamp of Knowledge. From the lamp, man learns basic skills such as cultivating land and taming animals.

View of the front entrance of the British Museum
View of the Museum from the Great Russell Street entrance.

The next step in the Progress of Civilisation is for man to expand his knowledge and understanding. The following eight figures represent the subjects he must learn to do this. From left to right they are: architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, and music and poetry. The final human figure, on the right, represents 'educated man'. Having expanded his knowledge, man can now dominate the world around him.

Two images of the pediment, the above shows the Wedgwood blue background and the statues were all painted white, the below the pediment as it is
The pediment over the British Museum's Main entrance and its original design by Sir Richard Westmacott.

The original pediment had a Wedgwood blue background and the statues were all painted white.

23. The Museum has an extremely rare North Korean collection

Oil painting portrait of a man in a helmet, looking to the side of viewer
Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), The Steelworker. Oil on canvas, c. 1990–1999.

In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the Museum's Keeper of Asia) built one of the largest collections of works of art from North Korea in a western museum. On her first trip she collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the Museum now has about 80 objects from North Korea.

24. The window cleaning bills aren't small

The Great Court at the British Museum is the largest covered square in Europe, so the roof needs to be pretty big. It is made up of 3,312 panes of glass, and they are all different because the Reading Room isn't centrally located in the Great Court. A roof this size is no trifling matter – it takes two weeks to do a complete clean.

A photograph of three people standing on the roof, abseiling and cleaning the glass.
Cleaning the roof of the Great Court. 

Things 25-29

25. Mozart visited the Museum in the 1760s

Watercolour, father stands to left, playing violin, son, aged seven, is seated at the instrument and his daughter, aged twelve, stands singing on the far side, pillars, sky and trees in background
Louis Carmontelle (1717–1806), Leopold Mozart and his two children, Wolfgang Amadeus and Marie Anne (Nannerl). Watercolour and bodycolour, on contemporary gold, black and green wash mount, 1777.

Mozart visited the British Museum with his family – his parents Leopold and Anna Maria, and his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl). They stayed in London between April 1764 and July 1765, and visited the Museum towards the end of their time here, to which the young Wolfgang dedicated 'God is our Refuge' (K. 20), his first sacred composition.

The manuscript is in the British Library's collection, written out in the hands of both Mozart himself and Leopold.

26. The Reading Room has hosted a few celebrities over the years

Arthur Conan Doyle's application for a ticket to the Reading Room.
Arthur Conan Doyle's application for a ticket to the Reading Room.

The world-famous Reading Room has seen a veritable who's who of legendary cultural figures, from Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and Lenin (going under the name Jacob Richter) to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Virginia Woolf. The library they consulted is now part of the British Library at St Pancras.

27. The Museum holds the nation's collection of over 2 million prints and drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the 15th century up to the present, featuring everything from drawings by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Van Gogh to prints by Picasso, Munch and Grayson Perry.

28. The most popular exhibition at the British Museum was in 1972

Those over 50s with good memories may well remember the Tutankhamun-mania that accompanied the Museum's most popular exhibition, way back in 1972. With health and safety not what it is today, around 1.6 million people filed through the doors to see the treasures of the world's most famous Egyptian king.

The queue outside the Museum for the 1972 exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun.
The queue outside the Museum for the 1972 exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun.

Opened on 30 March 1972 by HM Queen Elizabeth II, the exhibition coincided with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. In total, 50 objects were exhibited in Treasures of Tutankhamun, one for every year since the discovery. The star object was the famous gold death mask.

Two photos. On the left the Treasures of Tutankhamun poster showing title and mask. On the right, HM The Queen viewing mask in display cabinet with group of men
Left: Treasures of Tutankhamun poster. Right: HM The Queen viewing the exhibition.

29. There's been a postcard shop in the Museum for over a hundred years!

Black and white photo of the postcard stall in 1929, in the entrance hall.
The postcard stall in 1929, in the entrance hall.

On 14 October 1911, the Trustees gave the Director permission to prepare a scheme for the sale of postcards in the Museum. By 10 February 1912, the Director had made proposals for contracts for the supply of picture postcards to be sold in the Museum and it was agreed that there would be three saleswomen on the stall. In April 1912, financial provision for a counter for the sale of photographs and postcards had been approved and this was to be the first Museum shop.

However, not everyone was happy to see the opening of the postcard stall. In 1912, a notice appeared in the literary magazine 'The Athenaeum' submitted by 'An Old Reader'. They described the stall as 'large and obtrusive… surrounded by a chattering throng of young schoolgirls.' This image shows the postcard stall, located in the entrance hall, in 1929. Then, as now, don't forget to exit through the gift shop.

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