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


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

british museumAs a museum of the world, for the world, it’s vitally important that the objects in the collection are shared with as many people as possible. In 2015/16 over 5,000 objects were sent across the globe on loan, making us the most sharing museum on the planet.

It’s older than the United States of America

old british museumsThe British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum. Founded in 1753, it opened its doors in 1759, 17 years before the Declaration of Independence. It was free to all ‘studious and curious persons’, and it’s still free today (but a few other things have changed) and 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

tube station londonMIND THE GAP! That’s the gap between when there was a British Museum tube station and now. The photos above (courtesy of London Transport Museum) show the entrance to the Museum’s underground station in 1921, some gentlemen waiting on the platform in 1903 (with some fabulous hats!) and its construction in 1898. The station opened in 1900 but was closed in September 1933 when the new Holborn station opened, less than 100 yards away.

It was almost housed in Buckingham Palace

The British Museum was founded in 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane left his collection to the nation. But before the Museum could open to the public, a suitable site needed to be purchased. One of the locations considered was a place called Buckingham House, which was later rebuilt as Buckingham Palace (perfectly sited for a visit from hotels in Oxford Street London). But the Trustees agreed instead to move into Montague House, the site of the current Museum, and the rest is history! Or should that be geography?

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

Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum’s collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington (within very easy reach of any Notting Hill hotel); the result was London’s Natural History Museum, which was still officially known as the British Museum (Natural History) until 1992, despite being legally separate since 1963. Similarly, the founding collection contained a huge number of manuscripts and books. The collection continued to grow and grow, until the British Library became a separate institution in 1973. Even then, it remained in the Bloomsbury site until 1997 when it moved to the new building on Euston Road.

It led London in installing electric lighting

Until the late 19th Century the Museum was lit by natural daylight. Candles, oil lamps and gas lamps were not used in the galleries for fear of fire, and so the Museum was often forced to close early due to poor light in winter or during a London fog. As such, the Museum became one of the first public buildings in London to install electric lighting. In 1879 experimental electric lighting was provided in the Front Hall, the Reading Room and in the Forecourt. Although this early lighting system was unreliable, the Reading Room was able to stay open until 19.00 during the winter. Within 10 years an improved system had been extended to most of the public areas.