Sunday, March 2, 2014

Building of the Week: The British Museum, London

The Forecourt
The British Museum

Established in 1753, at Montagu House in Bloomsbury (the site where the current museum stands today), The British Museum originally housed a permanent collection mainly comprised of artifacts assembled by physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. Over the next two centuries, the museum grew and expanded as the British Empire began to encompass new countries and cultures. Before selecting Montagu House, the founders of the museum considered Buckingham House—now the site of Buckingham Palace—as the location for their museum. By 1759, the museum had opened its first galleries and famed reading room which King George II ensured would be supplied with every book published in the United Kingdom.

In the late 1770’s the museum’s collection of artifacts began to grow, and for the first time British subjects were exposed to the arts of far-away lands and people. Around 1800, the collection began to focus predominately on Greek and Roman antiquities which were collected by British explorers and archaeologists. 1801 saw the museum’s collection of Egyptian artifacts increase markedly, and in 1802, King George II gifted the famed Rosetta Stone to the collection.


Weston Hall Interior
The British Museum
 As the collection grew, the museum saw many structural changes. In 1822, King George III donated The King’s Library to The British Museum, and plans were set in motion to alter the building which had become increasingly decayed since its opening. Sir Robert Smirke designed the impressive neoclassical façade that we see today as the central portion of the museum. This new facility opened around 1827. However, by the 1850’s the collection had, again, outgrown the building which at the time was considered one of the largest in Europe.

By 1895, properties around the museum had been purchased so that the building could be further expanded. Construction of new wings on all four sides of the complex began in 1906. In the 1970’s, with the debut of the treasures of King Tutankhamen, the museum was, again in need of more space. The Royal Library was moved to a separate location and the museum expanded further. In 2000, the space formerly occupied by the Library was developed into The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court—the largest covered square in Europe.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court
The British Museum
One of the largest museums in the world, The British Museum boasts one of the most thorough collections of world art and humanities. While some of the objects in the museum are controversial due to the means by which they were acquired, the fact remains that the collection is impressive. One could spend many days in the museum and still not see everything housed there. The building itself is a grand work of art, carefully designed over centuries to maintain its grandeur and to reflect the importance of the artifact that it houses.

If you find yourself in London, set aside a good amount of time to visit The British Museum.  Few places offer such a remarkable sampling of the most amazing things created by humans.  You will leave the place feeling that you are a part of something very grand and important.

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