Can you believe it? Little known facts about the British Museum

british museum in night

The most visited attraction in all London, the incredibly vast and comprehensive British Museum sees up to 6.5 million people pass through its doors each year. But what other fascinating facts are there to know about this remarkable landmark of London’s visitor-geared scene…

It contains more artefacts than anywhere else – anywhere

Despite its name the British Museum’s scope is so comprehensive that its gigantic collection includes items drawn from every era of civilisation and every corner of the globe. Indeed, just in 2015, 5,000 of all its objects were loaned to other venues across the world, ensuring the museum’s the most sharing of its kind on the planet.

It’s older than the United States of America

Undoubtedly, the oldest national museum still in existence, the British Museum was founded way back in 1753 and opened six short years later, which means that, yes, it predates the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, the founding of the United States by a cool 17 years. Free to entry to each and every visitor, it’s also very easy to get to via Tube from Shaftesbury suites Marble Arch – and speaking of the Tube…

It used to have its own Tube station

Once upon a time there was a British Museum London Underground station. Construction on the station was completed in 1898 and it opened in 1900. Although it’s certainly not around and in use today (the nearest – actually, very near – Tube station today is Holborn; just 100 yards away) it was open for more than three decades. closing eventually in September 1933.

It was almost housed in Buckingham Palace

The museum’s establishment in the mid-18th Century came about when physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection to the British nation – now, that was all very well, but where to house this burgeoning museum-to-be? One location that was considered at the time was a mansion by the name of Buckingham House; sound familiar? Well, decades later it was rebuilt (and significantly enlarged) to become Buckingham Palace (perfectly sited for a visit from hotels in Oxford Street London). Instead, the museum’s trustees chose Montague House in Bloomsbury as their preferred site, from which the museum has never moved.

It’s responsible for both The British Library and the Natural History Museum

In addition to many a fascinating historical item dating back to any number of different civilisations, Sir Hans Sloane’s collection also comprised natural history specimens, which naturally found their place into the flourishing early British Museum. However, come the 1880s and the Bloomsbury venue was starting to become rather crammed, so a new site in South Kensington (within very easy reach of any Notting Hill hotel) was sought for the natural history specimens; the result being London’s Natural History Museum, officially known as the British Museum (Natural History) right up until 1992, in spite of it being a separate ever since 1963.
That said, at the outset, the British Museum’s collection also comprised a vast array of manuscripts and books and, as this part of its displayed offerings grew and grew, it too became apparent a separate entity was required for their storage and display; hence the creation of the British Library, which eventually became officially separate 1973 and moved to its present site on Euston Road in 1997.

It led London in installing electric lighting

Finally, like most such institutions throughout the capital, the Museum’s lighting was provided by natural daylight – the use of candles, oil lamps and gas lamps were a big no-no in its galleries lest a fire might break out. In which case, as soon as sunset approached the museum would have to shut its doors on visitors, as it would have to as well in the case of extreme fog (which, at this time, was relatively frequent in London). All that changed, though, in 1879 thanks to experimental electric lighting, which was first provided for the Front Hall, the Reading Room and the Forecourt, ensuring the Museum was one of London’s very first public buildings to be lit by electricity.
Fair dos, this lighting system, in its infancy, was unreliable yet adequate enough for the Reading Room to remain open until 7pm in winter – and then, by the end of the 1880s, improved electric lighting was extended to much of the rest of the building’s public areas; leading the way for the entire city.