A guide to using the collection online

Welcome to the British Museum collection online. There are two levels of search available: a general field into which you can type anything and find objects based on that, and advanced options that provide access to the fixed terminology used to categorise objects in the Museum collection. These can be used in combination.


Using the general search

To search across the whole database, just type a term into the main search box and click ‘Search’.

This general search is useful if using specific words regardless of where they might be recorded in the database. For searches where the context in which a word might be recorded in relation to an object, or where a term might be stored in a hierarchy such as Materials or Places, using the advanced search functions will produce more focussed results.

As with other search facilities, you can use an asterisk following a term to retrieve results including words beginning with, ending with, or containing the word entered. For example, searching for port* will find 'port', 'ports', porthole, etc.

More than one search term can be entered, as well as certain forms of punctuation and the operator 'OR' (which must be in upper-case) to broaden the results.

For example:

  • elephant giraffe: will find all records with both words
  • rim OR base: will find records containing either word
  • "St Peter" will find records containing that exact phrase

This search can be used in combination with the Advanced Search

Using the advanced search options

The advanced search options enable users to enter search terms in one or a number of categories, in order to find terms used in the database to categorise objects. These terms, which are in most cases controlled lists, can then be used to retrieve a more focussed set of object results.

Where the categories are looking up controlled terms:

  • spelling and other variations are taken into account, for example, searching for the Ethnic Group ‘Fulbe’ also retrieves records for its variants, such as ‘Fellani’, ‘Foulah’, ‘Fulani’, etc.
  • searches on broader categories or terms will retrieve narrower terms (searching for 'metal' in Materials finds records for ‘bronze’, ‘copper’, ‘silver’ as well as those for 'metal')
  • searching for a term is focussed, ‘India' entered as a Place brings all objects made in, excavated in or depicting places in India, rather than those just with the word 'India' in any context, for example 'India paper' or 'India Office', etc.

How to build a search using the advanced options

1. Enter search term(s)

Each category is programmed to automatically look up the relevant list of terms using an ‘auto-complete’ facility. This is available for all but three of the options available*.

As you type a search term, options incorporating the string of letters you have just typed in, will start to appear. In the case of names in People and organisations, the options come up with brief biographical information (where available) to help identify each one.

For the fields controlled by thesauri (see below for definition), the options come up with any available explanatory notes (brief definitions of the term or its use).

* Museum numbers, dates and publication references do not have an auto-complete facility.

2. Select a term from the list and it will be added to your search (you’ll see it, immediately below the search box you are using).

Repeat to add more terms to your search. To remove a term, click on the x.

Terms within the same category can be combined (for example, ‘stele’ and ‘panel’) by selecting the ‘AND’ option beside each category (OR is selected by default).

Terms from different categories can be combined for more focussed results, for example People and organisations, 'Rembrandt', Object types, 'print'.

3. Search

4. View and sort results

Results will appear immediately below the search options and can be viewed as a list or in an image grid. They can be sorted in the following ways: images first, producer, title, date, none.

5. Refine the search

Once you have a set of results you can refine it in two ways:

1. Scroll up the page to change the set of search terms you’ve used

2. Click on Refine results.

If you have used search terms within the People and organisations, Places or Ethnic Groups categories, ‘associations’ relevant to those terms for that particular search will be made available. The associations express various types of relationships of the terms to the objects, such as ‘Made by’, ‘Portrait of’, ‘Used at’, etc.

For example, refine results on a search for ‘Rembrandt’ AND ‘print’ displays the name ‘Rembrandt’ and six associations: ‘Formerly attributed to’, ‘After’, ‘Print made by’, ‘Portrait of’, ‘Representation of’ and ‘Associated with’.

You can select one or more of these associations.

Please note: Selecting several associations performs ‘OR’ (rather than ‘AND’) searches, regardless of whether the associations apply to a single term or across several terms displayed at the refine results stage.

To activate the search, click on refine your results.

To try another refined search, click on 'clear refinement'.

About the advanced search categories

The controlled terminologies behind the advanced search options include thesauri and authorities.


Terms are structured in hierarchies and have certain relationships and explanatory notes. Non-preferred terms (variants) can be searched for as well as preferred terms. Selecting a term automatically retrieves all its narrow terms (more specific types). Explanatory notes, where available, can be viewed.

Please note: It is recommended that higher-level terms are selected if an initial search on specific terms does not produce the number of results expected, e.g. ‘porcelain’ rather than ‘blanc de chine’.


Biographical data (People and organisations) and bibliographic data (Publication) are controlled terminologies. For more information see the specific sections below.

Guide to search categories

Cultures / Periods / Dynasties

This covers specific historical periods and dynasties such as 'Qing dynasty' or 'Abbasid dynasty', as well as terms referring to broader periods or cultures such as 'Early Medieval' or 'Mesopotamian'.

Ethnic group

This covers the names of peoples or tribes, or ethnic or language groups.


This is the name given to the part of a clock or watch that controls the rate at which it functions. This rate is determined by the timekeeping element (the controlling device), usually a swinging pendulum or an oscillating balance. Whilst the controller locks and unlocks the escapement, the latter gives impulse to the former to keep it swinging or oscillating.


This covers the materials from which an object is made. It includes broader terms such as 'wood' or 'stone', as well as more specific terms such as 'oak', 'apple wood', 'granite' or 'marble'.

It also records secondary materials, so searching, e.g. for ‘gold’ will retrieve records for gilded objects as well as those made of gold.

For graphic art, this includes the material of the support on which the pigment is placed. In most cases this will be' paper' (different types of paper have not been distinguished), but it can also be 'silk', 'bark', 'vellum', 'linen', etc. It does not cover drawing, painting or printing pigments.

People and organisations

Names of people or organisations related in various ways to the objects: producer names (artists, makers, manufacturers, publishers, printers, etc.), acquisition names (donors, previous owners, funding bodies, etc.), associated names (people or deities portrayed or represented, authors of works, illustrated or otherwise referenced, etc.); authorities (rulers and others authorising the issue of coins, banknotes or tokens).

It includes historical, mythological and religious names. Names can be searched for under variants, such as alternative titles, spellings and pseudonyms.


Includes place names in several contexts: place of production, findspot or place of excavation and associations such as topography (views of places), emblems, etc.

A geographical thesaurus is extremely difficult to construct, since it has to cover places over time, many of which no longer exist, or which have changed their names, or boundaries. Many archaic place names are also included. In some cases, these are place terms in their own right (Preferred Terms) linked to their modern equivalents as Broad terms or Narrow Terms, in other cases, they are recorded as Non-Preferred terms.

Please note: Place of Production is often not known for Western prints and drawings. See also School/style below.

Schools / Styles

This captures an art-historical stylistic affiliation rather than any geographical or chronological origin. Eastern schools and styles are categorised traditionally according to the artistic style in which the works are made, for example, 'Persian' or 'South and South East Asian'.

For Western art, the schools recorded here are usually those of the modern states: 'Italian', 'French', 'German', 'British' and so on. ‘British’ is not sub-divided into ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, or ‘Irish’ (though since Irish independence artists are categorised as Irish). ‘Netherlandish’ becomes ‘Dutch’ or ‘Flemish’ in the late sixteenth century. For works dated since 1830 ‘Belgian’ becomes a school. Italian artists (uniquely) are sub-divided into Venetian, Florentine and so on.


This thesaurus covers subjects depicted on objects, or in the case of certain types of three-dimensional objects, notably figures, conveyed by the shape. It includes conceptual terms as well as those reflecting people and nature, and is generally used for higher level terms such as 'architecture' or 'fish', for example. For more specific terms use a basic search.

Please note: named people and places should be searched for in the People and organisations and Places fields. Named events or titles of works related to objects as subjects should be searched for in the basic search.

Object types

This field covers all the names of the types of objects in the collection, including many local or indigenous terms. It is important to check the Scope Notes as definitions of terms vary according to culture or curatorial practice. Thus watercolours are regarded as drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings, but as paintings in some other parts of the collection.


This covers the techniques employed to make an object, such as 'carved', 'glazed', or 'woodcut'.

Depending on scholarly convention, the terms ‘drawn’ and ‘painted’ have been used interchangeably for two-dimensional art. The Department of Prints and Drawings does not use the term ‘painted’, whereas some departments do use this term.

Unlike prints, which have a variety of specific techniques recorded, the methods of drawing do not lend themselves to categorising in this way, and so drawings have only been entered under the term ‘drawn’, paintings under the term 'painted'.

Terms for media, such as ‘graphite’ or ‘pencil’, ‘watercolour’ or ‘chalk’ can only be found through a basic search.

Certain techniques have not been recorded as they are assumed for certain categories of objects: the most obvious examples are 'struck' for coins, 'cast' for bronzes, and 'carved' for many forms of sculpture.


This covers type of ceramic that was used to make an object, such as 'Arita ware' or 'Agano ware'.

Publication (author/title)

Search for an author or publication title.

Many objects are referred to by using references to standard catalogues. Many of these have been published by the British Museum. Others, especially Western prints, are referred to by standard catalogues of the prints of a single printmaker (e.g. Bromberg on Sickert), or catalogues that cover a large number of printmakers (e.g. Bartsch and Hollstein).

Publication reference

Precise references in a publication. For example, one of the most commonly used print catalogues - by Adam Bartsch - should be entered as Bartsch, and then the citation number added in the form XIV.168.207. Wild cards (*) are strongly recommended for this field to capture sub-numbers or, in the case of print catalogues, states which are indicated by Roman numerals, e.g. to find 77.IV, enter 77*.

Searching by Museum number

Registration numbers

  • As there is enormous variation in the form of the British Museum registration numbers the following are only guidelines for the main types. 
  • It is essential to follow the correct form, including punctuation, as specified here.
  • As a general rule:
  • - each element of the registration number is separated by a comma, apart from a full stop which always precedes the object number or part number.
  • - no spaces are included.

Registration number with year, collection (digits) and object number

  • This is the most commonly used form:
  • year [comma]  collection as four digits [full-stop] object number [full-stop] part number
  • e.g. 1996,0411.14 or  2002,0324.17.8-14

Geographical and other prefixes

  • Some registration numbers start with a one or two letter prefix, usually a geographical reference. In most cases, these are continent prefixes for objects from the former Department of Ethnography for records prior to 2007. Depending on the next element of the registration number, there may be no space, a comma, or a full-stop after the prefix.

e.g. Oc1934,0316.73 or Am,St.418.a or Eu.4090

  • In some cases, two digits are used rather than four in the collection element.
  • e.g. As1997,24.8

Registration number with collection (letters or symbols) and object number

Usually there is no year in such forms. There are several variations, depending on whether part numbers or additional elements are present.

  • e.g.
  • Gg,1.461 or SL,5285.121       [Department of Prints and Drawings]
  • BNK.80                                       [Department of Coins and Medals]
  • PDF,C.642  or OA+.7059.b     [Department of Asia]
  • Oc,HAW.200 or  Af,+.8435      [Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas] 

Registration numbers with a zero before the object number

  • Used mainly for records for some of the two dimensional objects in the Departments of Asia and Middle East.
  • e.g. 1980,1022,0.11

Helpful tips

The user may have to try several punctuation alternatives if the registration number was not provided in the correct format in another source.

If the number is provided in an old catalogue or publication, it may be in a non standard format such as dashes rather than commas and full-stops or a zero appended to a number.

For example:

  • 1878-2-3-10 should be entered as 1878,0203.10
  • 1991-12-21-045 should be entered as 1991,1221,0.45

Do not confuse locations such as pressmarks with registration numbers.

BM or 'Big' numbers

These are used in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and the Department of the Middle East and are just a sequence of numbers. In the case of the Department of Egypt and Sudan, they are prefixed by EA, e.g. EA82276.

Other numbering systems

Sir Percival David Collection of Chinese Ceramics
The collection of Chinese Ceramics on loan to the Museum from the Percival David Foundation has a specific numbering system. To find the entire collection just search for PDF. Two different numbering systems are used, those of the form, e.g. PDF.1 or alternatively, some with a letter inserted, e.g. PDF,B.613.

Chinese and Japanese paintings
Numbers are in the form: Ch.Ptg.1 or Ch.Ptg.Add.45, and similarly Jap.Ptg.4 or Jap.Ptg.Add.5.

Image: Michelangelo, a nude young man, to front, looking to right, beckoning