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The British Museum
London, England

[Tuesday - 11/01/94] The British Museum is the oldest, and one of the largest museums in the world. Where else can you see some of the greatest treasures of all time under one roof? Here we saw first hand The Elgin Marbles, The Portland Vase, The Lewis Chessmen, The Sutton Hoo Treasure, to name only a few of the wondrous collections awaiting us.

In 1753, the Government of the day bought the collection of Sir Hans Sloan, a wealthy Doctor who practised in Chelsea. The collection consisted of over 80,000 curios including fossils, plants, coins, medals and prints. This unlikely assortment formed the beginning of what has become certainly the biggest, and probably one of the best museum collections in the world.

An act of Parliament established the British Museum as the world’s first public museum. The Cottonian Library formed by the Harleys, Earls of Oxford, was immediately added to the collection. In 1757, George II presented The Royal Library to the museum. In 1823, George III conferred on the museum the right to a copy of every book printed. This right continues to the present day.

By this time, with the acquisition of enormous quantities of antiquities, artifacts, discoveries from all over the world and many bequests, it became apparent that more space to house the ever growing collection was essential. In 1823, Robert and Sydney Smith submitted their designs for the new purpose built British Museum. The work was carried out over the next thirty years and what emerged was one of London’s most awe-inspiring buildings.

Designed in the Greek revival style, this magnificent building has an Ionic colonnade and portico complete with pediment frieze. By the 1850’s, the site included The Great Court, in the middle of which was built the Round Reading Room, surmounted by one of the largest domes in the world. In spite of the expansion, space once again proved to be a problem and a new home was found for the Natural History Collection; this was transferred to South Kensington in the 1880’s; and is now known as the Natural History Museum.

Another major change to the museum took place when it was decided to remove the British Library to new purpose built premises at St. Pancras. This enormous undertaking begun in the 1970’s was not completed until 1998.

Today, the British Museum is home to no less than six and a half million objects and has ninety four permanent and temporary exhibition galleries. An Education Department provides a wide range of services for adults and children. Other departments are Coins and Medals, Egyptian Antiquities, Ethnography, Greek and Roman Antiquities, Japanese Art, Medieval and Later Art, Oriental Antiquities, Pre-Historic and Romano-British Antiquities, Prints and Drawings, and Western Asiatic Antiquities.

Conservation work is currently taking place to enable the Great Court to be re-opened and to restore the Round Reading Room. Plans are also under way to provide a public study area and a multi-media reference library.

Exhibits which should not be missed include: The Rosetta Stone - the basalt slab inscribed by priests of Ptolemy V in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Found in 1799 by troops of Napoleon near the city of Rosetta, N Egypt, it provided J.F. Champollion and other archeologists with the key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Elgin Marbles - ancient sculptures taken from the Acropolis of Athens to England in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, the 7th earl of Elgin. The marbles are the subject of friction between Greece, who want them to be returned, and Britain which considers they are an integral part of the Museum's collection. The Dead Sea Scrolls - The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 in caves in Qumran and in the North West area of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were stored in jars and are thought to have been written or copied between the 100 BC and 50 AD. These books are substantially older than any Hebrew biblical manuscript previously known and will continue to provide research material for archeologists and theologians for many decades to come. The Tomb of Mausolus, The Parthenon frieze by Phidias, The Lindow Bog Man, The Sutton Hoo Celtic art collection, The Magna Carta, The Lindesfarne Gospels, Manuscripts of Wordsworth and Austen and many, many others. Frankly, it just boggles the mind. Fortunately, it also illuminates it!

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