The British Museum is one of the most famous museums in the world and houses a lot of interesting artifacts. Its collection is said to span more than two million years of human history. Like any old establishment, it also has a few quirky secrets and factoids that make it special. Thus here are ten facts you may not know about the British Museum, one of London’s top tourist attractions.
1. The British Museum is the oldest museum in the world
The very first national public museum ever built was the British Museum. It was opened in 1759, twenty years before the prestigious Louvre Museum was opened in France and twenty-two years before the Habsburg Royal family in Vienna, opened the Belvedere Palace to the public of Austria.
2. The British Museum birthed the British Library and London’s Natural History Museum
The British Museum is the permanent home of more than eight million artifacts, originating from every continent in the world. Its collection once grew too large to handle, forcing the Museum to open a separate site in South Kensington to house its natural history specimens. This site was known as the British Museum (Natural History) until 1992 when it was renamed as London’s Natural History Museum.
This growth phenomenon happened again with a collection of books and manuscripts. The collection once again outgrew the museum’s ability to provide space for it, and in 1973 it was moved to a separate site which became the British Library.
3. Three of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum are the Oxus Treasure, the Rosetta Stone, and the Elgin Marbles.
The Oxus Treasure is a selection of metalwork which was found by the Oxus River between 1877-1880. The collection numbers about 180 pieces made in gold and silver, as well as 200 coins. The treasure is said to have survived from the Achaemenid Persian period.
Also referred to as the Parthenon Marbles, the Elgin Marbles are a collection of medieval, marble Greek Sculptures. These sculptures were brought to Great Britain in the early 1800s by the Earl of Elgin, who acquired them from the Parthenon Temple in Athens.
Before it became the name of a world-famous typing course, the name Rosetta Stone belonged to an actual stone that was found in Rosetta, Egypt in 1799. The stone had ancient hieroglyphs carved onto it. Its discovery was instrumental to the translation of Ancient Egyptian writing.
4. The British Museum is regularly visited by tricksters
Every ancient institution is plagued by its fair share of tricksters who either want to steal or play pranks. In 2002, the Greek gallery was deposed of a marble head sculpture. In 2004, it was said that a thief successfully stole a jewelry collection that dated back to 700 AD and contained earrings, fingernail guards, and other items. In 2005, a relatively unknown trickster who went by the name of Banksy played a prank on the museum staff by placing a painting of a primitive man pushing a shopping cart on display. The painting was left on display for a few days before finally being taken down.
5. The most famous guard at the British Museum was a cat
One of the furry facts about the British Museum is that it has been home a lot of cats over the centuries. These cats patrol the grounds, from the courtyards to the gate. The most famous cat-keeper of the main gate was named Mike and he patrolled the gate from 1909-1929. Upon his death, the museum staff mourned him and his obituary was featured in TIME magazine and in the Evening Standard.
6. The British Museum has been mixed up in a lot of controversies
One of the more controversial facts about the British Museum is that its collection is made up of rare artifacts from different countries in the world. As it turns out, many of those countries want their artifacts back and have demanded that they are returned. However, the British Museum has categorically stated that it will not be returning any of the items. The museum does give its pieces out on loan, sometimes even to the countries that the pieces came from originally.
7. The British Museum was one of the first electrified buildings in London
Electricity did not come to the UK until the late 1800s. Until that time, the only lighting available for the Museum was natural light, as the administration would not approve the use of candles or oil lamps in the galleries for fear of fire hazard. This meant that in periods of poor lighting like fog or winter, the Museum had to be closed down. In 1879, electricity was installed to light up the museum; first in the Front Hall, the Forecourt, and the Reading Room.
8. The British Museum is popular in the entertainment industry
One of the most interesting facts about the British Museum is that although lots of people may never have seen it in real life, they have experienced its beauty in various movies over the years. The first movie scene ever shot in the Museum was for The Wakefield Cause, in 1921. Eight years after that, Blackmail, by Alfred Hitchcock was also shot there. Scenes from the Hollywood masterpiece, Day of the Jackal were also shot at the Museum in 1973. Most recently, the museum featured in the global hit movie Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)
9. Not everything about the British Museum is as it seems
Specifically, the railings of the museum. Many people seem to think they are black. In actual fact, they are painted ‘invisible green’. This paint was made popular by a landscape gardener named Humphry Repton. It is used on most of the railings of historic buildings all over London.
10. A snail once came back to life in the British Museum
The movie Night at the Museum was not totally fiction. Some museum artifacts have indeed been known to come back to life. The most famous of these cases of suspended animation belongs to a snail which was part of a collection of snails that was donated to the natural history collection in 1846. The snail was on display for four years before anyone noticed it was alive. It was moved to more suitable living conditions and died six years later.
NOTE: The British Museum is located in the Bloomsbury area of London at Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG. The nearest London Underground stations are Tottenham Court Road (500m), Holborn (500m), Russell Square (800m) and Goodge Street (800m). The British Museum is open daily from 10.00 am to 17:30 pm. As the British Museum collection is quite extensive, consider a guided tour as part of one of our London Tours.