Sir Joseph Hotung with the Queen. He points to an object in a display case.

Queen Elizabeth II and the British Museum

Publication date: 15 September 2022

We are deeply saddened at the passing of Her Majesty The Queen, and our thoughts are with the Royal Family. We have been honoured by, and fondly remember, Her Majesty’s steadfast support for the Museum throughout her reign. Here we take a look back at some of The Queen’s 15 visits to the Museum.

To commemorate her life, we take a trip into the archives and find out what happened when Her Majesty came to visit, both before and during her 70-year reign.

Visiting as a young princess

Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Queen Mary looking at the Rosetta Stone
Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Queen Mary stand near the Rosetta Stone. This drawing appeared in The Illustrated London News on 4 December 1937.

The Queen's first recorded visit to the British Museum was on 22 November 1937, when she was 11 years old and still a Princess. She visited with her sister Princess Margaret, and grandmother Queen Mary. They're shown in the illustration above with Museum Director Sir John Forsdyke looking at the Rosetta Stone, which was displayed outside of a case at this time. The Illustrated London News records that the Princesses received an hour-and-a-half tour of the Assyrian and Egyptian galleries with the Director. The royal party then went to the upstairs galleries and 'were so absorbed that they remained considerably longer than they intended'! We know the feeling, Your Majesty!

With the Archbishop of Canterbury

It was 20 years until The Queen came to visit again – on 27 November 1957 – escorted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was one of the Museum's three Principal Trustees. The visit celebrated the 200th anniversary of the donation by King George II in 1757 (shortly after the Museum’s foundation in 1753) of the Old Royal Library of the sovereigns of England. The Queen took the opportunity to make a further gift – The Royal Music Library – which had been on loan to the British Museum since 1911. A splendid Trustees' reception in the King's Library (the room built to house George III's gift to the nation in 1823 of his personal library) was followed by a white tie dinner. The Royal Music Library consisted of a collection of hand-written music scores by composers such as George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell, JC Bach and Felix Mendelssohn together with a wide range of printed music. This, and other royal libraries, are now housed in the British Library.

A group of people, including Queen Elizabeth II, walk through the Museum
Her Majesty at the Trustees’ reception in 1957, accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition

A black and white photo of Her Majesty The Queen looking at the mask of Tutankhamun.
Her Majesty The Queen looking at the mask of Tutankhamun during a visit to the Museum in 1972.

In 1972, The Queen was among the staggering 1.6 million visitors to the Museum’s exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Tutankhamun's tomb being discovered by the Earl of Carnavon and Howard Carter. Her Majesty opened the show on 29 March and received a tour of the exhibition. Fifty objects found in the tomb were displayed including the gold portrait mask from this great pharaoh’s mummy, gold jewellery and gold figures of the king. Here The Queen is pictured in front of the incredible gold death mask. The objects were on loan from the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt and this was the first time many of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb had travelled outside of Egypt.

Opening the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery

The Queen visited the Museum again in 1992 to open the then ‘Joseph E. Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities’ (now the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, Room 33). On a very wet night, The Queen was received at the Montague Place entrance by His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, then Royal Trustee, and the Duchess. The Queen toured the new gallery and pulled a bow, releasing a silk banner covering an inscription. Her Majesty departed the Museum via the Main entrance, to a backdrop of giant projections of objects from the Hotung gallery onto the Museum.

Queen Elizabeth II greets guests at the Museum
The Queen, escorted by Lord Windlesham, Chairman of the British Museum Trustees, meeting dignitaries including the then Director Dr Robert Anderson.

Opening the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

The Great Court, full name the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – with its remarkable glass roof – was opened on 6 December 2000. Dedicated to Her Majesty and designed by Sir Norman (now Lord) Foster, the Great Court was constructed in the space around the 1857 Round Reading Room at the heart of the Museum, now vacated by the British Library, to mark the new millennium and a new era for the Museum.

Guests were met on arrival by 17th-century brass music. As The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in the Weston Great Hall the British Museum and British Library Choir assembled on the stairs to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s motet God is our Refuge, composed for the Museum after his visit in July 1765. The Queen formally declared the Great Court open and there followed a music and light show accompanied by the second section of Haydn’s Creation. 

The Queen’s tour of the Great Court ended in the refurbished Reading Room viewing area where books written by a vast array of notable Readers were displayed, from Matthew Arnold and Charles Dickens, to Karl Marx and WB Yeats.

Take a look around the Great Court on a virtual tour of the space on Google Street View.

The Queen gives a speech at a lectern, in front of hundreds of guests gathered in the Great Court
Her Majesty opening the Great Court in 2000.

And most recently…

In 2017, Her Majesty returned to open the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia. The Queen was greeted by Director Hartwig Fischer and Chair of the Trustees Sir Richard Lambert, before enjoying a tour of the gallery with its curators and Sir Joseph. The stunning new gallery displays objects from China and South Asia spanning from prehistory to the present – you can tour the gallery with our curators in this video.

In Summer of 2022, we celebrated the woman who made the iconic profile of The Queen that went on coins and postage stamps in The Asahi Shimbun Displays Mary Gillick: modelling The Queen’s portrait, in Room 3. Running from 2 June to 31 July 2022, this intriguing display revealed the artist and the process behind the portrait.

Remembering Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Museum will honour The Queen’s memory by flying the flag at half-mast, observing a one-minute silence on the eve of her funeral, and senior staff will wear black ties and arm bands during the period of mourning.

A book of condolence has been placed in the Great Court for visitors to sign, should they wish.

The Museum will be closed on Monday 19 September 2022 in respect of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral.