Painting with purple background, with black snakes moving across the composition

Collecting and empire trail

Learn how colonial relationships shaped the British Museum's collection in this object trail.

From around 1500 to the mid-20th century, a number of European countries established overseas empires – Britain's empire was the largest. The British Museum was founded in 1753: its history and collection are shaped by empire and the colonial exploitation of people and resources.

This trail highlights objects that were predominantly acquired during the age of empire and shows the different, complex and sometimes controversial journeys of objects that would become part of the Museum collection. Sometimes objects were acquired directly but often they were collected first by individuals, organisations or companies, passing through several owners before coming to the Museum.

15-object trail this trail can be completed in a single visit and will take around 6070 minutes. It takes in several different galleries which are on the Ground floor. When you visit the object in the gallery you’ll find more information about how the Museum acquired it.

Three-object trail – this trail is ideal if you only have 30 minutes to spare. 

Further objects will be added to this section over the next 12 months as the result of ongoing collaborative work and research.

Lion statues of Amenhotep III

1. Lion statues of Amenhotep III (Room 4)

In 1829, Algernon Percy (Lord Prudhoe) of Northumberland reached Jebel Barkal, Sudan, on one of his journeys to Egypt and Sudan. During his visit there he arranged the shipment of these lions back to England with the help of the British Consul General. He donated them to the British Museum in 1835.

The Exekias Amphora

2. The Exekias Amphora (Room 13)

This amphora, by the ancient Athenian potter and painter Exekias, came to the British Museum in 1836. It was purchased in Paris at the posthumous sale of works belonging to the collector and diplomat Edmé-Antoine Durand (1768–1835).

The Nereid Monument

3. The Nereid Monument (Room 17)

The Sultanate in Constantinople (now Istanbul) authorised Charles Fellows' excavations at Xanthos and the subsequent removal of the Nereid monument. The Royal Navy assisted with moving and transporting the heavy sculptures to HMS Beacon which transported the finds to Malta, before being shipped onto England. 

Statue of Ankhrenepnefer

4. Statue of Ankhrenepnefer (Room 4)

This temple statue depicts Ankhrenepnefer presenting a divine image. The Egypt Exploration Fund gave it to the British Museum in 1883, beginning decades of excavation finds being divided between Egypt and other countries.

Ancestral screen from Nigeria

5. Ancestral screen from Nigeria (Room 25)

This is one of 11 ancestral screens entrusted by Kalabari chiefs to a British administrative officer between 1914 and 1916 to save them from destruction by a local fundamentalist Christian movement.

Palace door and lintel from Nigeria

6. Palace door and lintel from Nigeria (Room 25)

This door, carved for the palace at Ikere, Nigeria, was displayed in 1924 at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley. It was presented to the Museum by the Ogoga (king) of Ikere who was given a European-style throne made in Britain in return.

Military tunic from Sudan

7. Military tunic from Sudan (Room 25)

This officer's tunic was taken from the Battle of Atbara as spoils of war in 1898 following the defeat of Sudanese nationalist forces by an Anglo-Egyptian army. The widow of the commander of the British Brigade at Atbara subsequently presented it to the Museum.

Potlatch Kwakwaka'wakw mask from Canada

8. Potlatch Kwakwaka'wakw mask from Canada (Room 26)

Seized by the Canadian authorities during a potlatch ceremony in 1921, then illegal under Canadian law, this mask was sold to a private collector who eventually donated it to the British Museum.

West African drum, collected in Virginia

9. West African drum, collected in Virginia (Room 26)

This drum, made by the Akan people, Ghana, was taken to Virginia during the period of the slave trade and came to the British Museum as part of its founding collection, bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloane.

Puppets and masks from Java

10. Puppets and masks from Java (Room 1)

Sir Stamford Raffles, who established Singapore as a British port, collected large numbers of artefacts, including those on display here, while serving as Lieutenant-Governor of Java in the 1810s.

Soup plate from China

11. Soup plate from China (Room 1)

Commodore Lord Anson of the British East India Company circumnavigated the world in 1743. He commissioned a porcelain dinner service, including this plate, on a visit to Canton in 1747.

Shield from New South Wales, Australia

12. Shield from New South Wales, Australia (Room 1)

The details of the acquisition of this shield are not known but it was likely that it was collected in the early days of the British colony at Sydney from 1788 and received in the Museum by 1817.

'Pukara', a painting from Western Australia

13. Pukara, a painting from Indigenous Australia (Room 24)

Pukara, featuring ancestral Dreaming sites, was painted for sale in 2013 by senior Aboriginal men of the Pila Nguru (Spinifex people) of the desert region of Western Australia.

Dance costume from Kiribati

14. Dance costume from Kiribati (Room 24)

Members of the Kiribati community in Britain donated items to enable the Museum to display a complete dance costume as part of a co-curated project.

Milk vessel from Somalia

15. Milk vessel from Somalia (Room 24)

Diana Powell-Cotton, an ethnographic collector and photographer, purchased this vessel along with other items during a fieldtrip to Italian Somaliland in 1934–35. She subsequently donated it to the Museum.

Short of time?

If you only have half an hour, focus on these three objects…

Lion statues of Amenhotep

1. Lion statues of Amenhotep III (Room 4)

In 1829, Algernon Percy (Lord Prudhoe) of Northumberland reached Jebel Barkal, Sudan, on one of his journeys to Egypt and Sudan. During his visit there he arranged the shipment of these lions back to England with the help of the British Consul General. He donated them to the British Museum in 1835.

The Exekias Amphora

2. The Exekias Amphora (Room 13)

This amphora, by the ancient Athenian potter and painter Exekias, came to the British Museum in 1836. It was purchased in Paris at the posthumous sale of works belonging to the collector and diplomat Edmé-Antoine Durand (1768–1835).

Dance costume from Kiribati

3. Dance costume from Kiribati (Room 24)

Members of the Kiribati community in Britain donated items to enable the Museum to display a complete dance costume as part of a co-curated project.