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Catalog of Humanity: 10 Interesting Facts and Figures about the British Museum You Probably Didn’t Know

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The British Museum is one of the world’s foremost repositories of historical artifacts. Sir Hans Sloane founded it in 1753 and filled it much of his own collection. The first museum opened in 1759 in Montague House, which sat on the current museum’s site. Have a look at some of interesting facts about the museum acquired over its 256 years.

Original Collection

Sir Hans Sloane, physician and scientist, bequeathed his collection to Britain in 1753, which included 71,000 books, antiquities, and national specimens. While well-known for treating Queen Anne and Kings George I and George II, as well as promoting smallpox inoculation, he is perhaps best known for inventing chocolate milk (in addition to founding the museum, of course).

Current Collection

The British Museum collection today contains over 8 million objects. Only 1%, or 80,000 of these objects are on display at any given time in 194 designated store rooms. 50.8% of the collection not on display is stored on the Bloomsbury site, and this number does not include the galleries.


Between 1799 and 1810, when the Ottoman Empire controlled the city of Athens, Greece, Lord Elgin acquired a series of stone statues and other objects from the Parthenon. At the time, the Ottomans would often use the Parthenon for target practice, so Elgin believed he was saving the artifacts by acquiring them. Known as the Parthenon Marbles or the Elgin Marbles, they have been the subject of controversy as the Greek Government has made regular requests to have them returned.

Museum Hoax

In 2005, British street artist Banksy actually fooled museum staff into displaying a supposed cave painting of an early human pushing a shopping cart. Entitled “Early Man Goes to Market”, Bansky’s piece was displayed in the gallery for Roman Britain artefacts. It was only up for a couple of days before the museum caught on and removed it.

Historical Porn

The museum once displayed a series of Japanese erotic art. The exhibition had 87,893 visitors in three months and was described by Sun editor David Dinsmore as “raunchier than Page 3”.

Ancient Egypt

The British Museum contains several great artefacts from the days of the Pharaohs. Amongst these are the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, and several mummified cats. Perhaps the most important piece is the Rosetta Stone, the artefact that helped Egyptologists decipher hieroglyphics and learn more about the ancient culture.

For Let

The British Museum lends its collection out as much as possible “the increase public awareness and collaboration with collections and colleagues around the world”. 3,823 items in the collection have been lent every year; 1,982 are lent to UK displays and 1,841 are lent to overseas museums.

Recent Thefts

In 2004, a thief was believed to have walked out of the museum with earrings, fingernail guards, and other pieces of jewelry which dated back to 700 A.D. A marble head was stolen from the Greek gallery in 2002.

Royal Museum?

While Montague House was the eventual site of the British Museum, other sites that were considered initially included the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham House. If the latter sounds familiar, it should—it’s now known as Buckingham Palace.

Visitor Numbers

In 2013, the British Museum received 6,701,036 visitors. The previous record was around 6 million visitors in 2008 and museum visitation was up 20% from 2012. The busiest day of 2013 was August 16 with 33,848 visits and July was the busiest month with 747,936 visits. The museum’s website, however, blows these numbers out of the water with 19.5 million visits last year.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. I reside in California and I knew 7 of 10. I have said it before and I will probably say it again. I think your title that people probably don’t know these items is insulting. I would encourage you to change the title. Perhaps 10 interesting facts about ………. would be a better choice.

  2. Rosalie~ I suppose the statement in the title is softened by the use of the word, “probably”. I am looking forward to familiarizing myself with the British Museum and regret I didn’t schedule a visit during my stay in London.

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