The British Museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759.

By Jean Marie Carey

The British Museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759.

Italian art from the ancient world through the Early Modern period figures prominently in the museum’s permanent collection of more than eight million works. The more than 100,000 objects in the Etruscan collections and departments of Greece and Rome range mostly from the early Bronze Age (c. 3200 BCE) to the era of the Edict of Milan under the reign of Emperor Constantine in 313.

The museum also keeps some of its treasures in drawers and folders. More than 43,000 Italian prints from the advent of the Renaissance book boom to the late 19th Century are catalogued to the most minute detail, from publishing house to image particularities, including numbers of spots on leopards and the direction scarves are folded.

The museum was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1753 when the English government purchased the large and varied collections of the physician, naturalist, and antiquarian Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), which included books, works of art, and natural history. The collections were soon augmented by the acquisition of Sir William Hamilton’s classical vases and antiquities (1772), the Townley Marbles (1805), the Phrygian Marbles (1815) and the notorious Elgin Marbles (1816). Egyptian antiquities, including the Rosetta Stone, were spoils of the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the century.

By the mid-19th century the museum’s collections were among the most extensive and valuable in Europe. Archaeological digs, colonial surveys, and military and civil expeditions provided large collections of archaeology, natural history, and anthropology, the latter two being the foundations of the Natural History Museum, which separated in 1881, and the Museum of Mankind, an out-station established in the 1960s.

The museum is open at no charge every day. As an additional enticement, the special exhibition “Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome” is on through May 2017. This display presents coins and other objects that were defaced, either to condemn the memory of deceased Roman emperors or to undermine the power of living ones.

Reference: David M. Wilson. The British Museum: A History. London: British Museum Press, 2002.


Anonymous, Two cheetahs wearing collars, formerly in a sketch-book. c.1400. Museum number 1895,1214.94.

Cameo glass Portland Vase, the amous glass vessel from ancient Rome, c. 25. Nr.1877, 09483.1

Pottery: Italian Sigillata shard with a list of potters’ names in Greek, c. 15 BCE. Nr. 1919,0718.24.

Anonymous, Baby chick facing right, c. 1600. Nr. 1895,1214.94.

A lion attacking a horse, 1578. Engraving. Published by Pietro Paolo Palumbo, after Polidoro da Caravaggio. Print made by Sebastiano di Re. Nr. 1948,0227.2.

In attenzione. A dog standing to attention facing right
, 1850. Etching on a sheet of chine collé. Published by Carlo Lovera. Print made by Giovanni Battista Quadrone. Nr. 1871,0812.1236.

Figure of a noble lady from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, 570-560 BCE. Nr.1850,0227.1.

Copper-alloy medallion showing the defaced bust of the Roman emperor Commodus. Minted in Rome, c 191.


Further Reading: Marjorie Caygill. Treasures of the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 2009.

Tiffany Jenkins. Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums … and Why They Should Stay There. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.   

Jerrold, W. Blanchard. How to See the British Museum in Four Visits. Project Gutenberg e-book, 2004

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