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British Museum

British Museum (31)

Presented to the public as a museum of the world for the world, the British Museum guards inside its walls an endless list of items of art and antiques that narrate 2 million years of the history of humanity. Organised on the basis of cultures and civilisations, both current and extinct, it remains true to its commitment to freely providing knowledge to whoever wishes. Thus, despite the size and importance of its collections, entrance is still free and has been since the day it opened, in 1759.

Created in 1753 from the private collection left to the State by the doctor and naturalist Hans Sloane, the museum had its headquarters initially in Montagu House, a mansion in the district of Bloomsbury that was on the land where the museum stands today. The first antiques were acquired in 1772, and the institution gradually accumulated such a quantity of items that it became obvious that that Montagu House had become obsolete due it its size. The fact that King George IV left his father’s library to the museum meant that, finally, it was decided to build a new building.

The architect Robert Smirke was entrusted to give shape to the project, and the works to erect this impressive neoclassical building began in 1823. Like an oracle predicting what the visitor is going to see, the entrance to the British Museum, dominated by an elegant portico supported by Ionic columns, with its majestic appearance, seems to transport us to classical Greece. 

The works were completed in 1852 and supervised in the last 7 years by Smirk’s brother Sydney, who later was also entrusted to design the Reading Room, the enormous circular room covered by a dome which, situated in the central courtyard of the building, was used to house the museum’s considerable library. In 1997 the volumes that make it up were transferred to the new headquarters of the British Library.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the museum had to undergo new enlargements, such as the constructions of the White Wing and the Parthenon Galleries. However, the reform process that has most changed the building’s appearance was the placement of a steel and glass roof to cover the central courtyard, the Elizabeth II Great Court. The design was placed in the hands of the Foster and Partners architects’ studio, and, on placing the last glass panel in 2000, the space became the largest covered public square in Europe. With the Reading Room as the epicentre, the Elizabeth II Great Court is like a symbol of the museum’s philosophy, since it results in an attractive contrast between its modern technology and the fact that within these walls, objects are kept from prehistoric times.

As regards the collections, get ready to enjoy them, but you must be patient, because it is bigger than it may appear at the beginning. If you have time and you are interested enough, the best thing is to visit the museum on several days. The rooms are organised on the basis of cultures, civilisation and, in some cases, the objects are grouped by disciplines. One example of this classification is that you can find, on the one hand, a section dedicated to Ancient Egypt and Sudan, another to Africa, Oceania and the Americas and, on the other hand, a section dedicated to Coins and Medals and another to Prints, Engravings and Drawings.

It would be difficult to explain in just a few words the scale of what is on show at the British Museum. Nevertheless, to get an idea you should know that some of its star pieces are the Rosetta Stone, which enabled Egyptian hieroglyphics to be deciphered, some statues from the pediment and one of the friezes from the Parthenon of Athens, the winged bulls from the Syrian palace of Khorsabad or a genuine statue from Easter Island.

The phenomenal display of items includes Chinese porcelain, archaic Anglo-Saxon weapons, as well as a large collection of Egyptian mummies. Therefore, being in London, you have no excuse not to be one of the 5 million visitors who come to the museum every year in order to delve into its fascinating universe.  

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