15 Intriguing and Surprising British Museum Facts

The British Museum London England UK

Museums collect artifacts spanning most of human history and share them with the world to show how far we’ve come. Who can resist the intrigue and mystery of the past? 

For those seeking degrees to set them on the path to a career in museums, one of the oldest and most impressive collections is that of the British Museum.

Before you begin filling out applications to become a museum curator, archivist, or historical researcher, check out these 15 facts highlighting the unique history of The British Museum.

1. Long-standing Landmark of London

Did you know that the Montagu House (sometimes known as Montague House) wasn’t the first location considered for The British Museum? 

The first choice for the Museum’s site was a place known as Buckingham House, which later became Buckingham Palace.

2. A Lack of Light Lead to Experiments with Electrical Installations

This tidbit is one of the more obscure British museum facts you’ll find here. Early in its history, the Museum didn’t allow candles or lamps in the galleries because they were potential fire hazards. 

Before 1879, when they installed an experimental system, the Museum often closed early due to a lack of natural light.

3. In-depth Applications and Entrance Examinations

Early job applications for The British Museum were much like today’s college entrance examinations. They included department-specific questions to determine applicants’ knowledge of historical illustration techniques or coin types, depending on where the applicants intended to work.

4. A Century's Worth of Postcard Sales

Without British museum facts like these, you wouldn’t know that the Museum has been selling postcards since 1912. In fact, it only took two months for someone to voice their opinion about the stall, saying it was “obtrusive” and essentially unwelcome. 

Even so, the ever-busy gift shop continues to grow and garner profits.

5. The First Museum of Its Kind

The British Museum was the first public museum to receive government support and funding. There has never been a fee to enter the building, even after 200+ years of operation since its opening in 1759.

6. Continual Institutional Growth

If you think these British museum facts are adding up quickly, imagine how the collections within the Museum have grown. The Museum features over 200 years of additions from hundreds of cultures and individuals. The collections have already necessitated the creation of two new institutions to help handle the inventory.

7. A Film Set Favorite

You might be a little familiar with the layout of The British Museum, thanks to a wide range of films that use the location as a set. Cameras began rolling in the Museum as early as 1921, and upwards of 50 film crews continue to visit the site each year.

Some of the most well-known movies that shot scenes in the Museum include, The Wakefield Cause (George Irving, 1921), Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929), The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973), and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Shawn Levy, 2014).

8. The Not-So-Subtle Secretum

Once upon a time, there was a room in the Museum that the curator filled with objects that an act passed in 1857 labeled as obscene. There were strict limitations on who received entrance permits, including notes on the maturity and morality of each applicant.

9. Sharing Historical Wealth

The British Museum has a long history of sharing its collections with the world to help humanity understand the past. In some years, the Museum has been able to share over 5,000 objects globally in just one year. Can you imagine how many miles some artifacts have traveled?

10. Mozart Gave The Museum a Gift

Did you know that Mozart liked the Museum so much that he gifted a sacred choral composition, known as a motet, to the collection? 

He and his father composed it together in 1765 and named it “God is Our Refuge.” 

11. The Second Largest Egyptian Mummy Collection

This is one of the more well-known British museum facts. Between the Tutankhamun-mania in 1972 and the continuing excavations that contribute to the world’s public collections of mummies, the Museum still inspires over 53 thousand searches for Egyptian artifacts yearly.

Egyptian culture draws much interest, and The British Museum has the second-largest collection to help individuals continue learning about the country and its history. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo still has the most extensive mummy collection in the world, but the British Museum is a close second.

12. The Original Collections

Sir Hans Sloane gave his immense collection of specimens of natural history to the British nation, inspiring the initial creation of the Museum as we know it. The government combined the Sloane collection with the literary collections of Robert Harley, Sir Robert Cotton, and the Royal Library to create a new public institution.

13. Millions of Drawings and Prints by Legendary Artists

The British Museum’s collection of prints and drawings includes over two million prints and about 50,000 drawings that range in age from the 15th century to the modern day. Prominent creators include Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Munch, and Van Gogh.

14. A Museum Tube Station

For 33 years, The British Museum had its own underground tube station, making the Museum more accessible to those living in nearby regions. The Museum’s station was closed by the end of 1933 in favor of the newly built Holborn Station, which is only 100 yards away.

15. World Famous Reading Room Visitors

The Museum’s original combination of regional libraries encouraged the development of the Round Reading Room. The room opened in 1857 and welcomed 62,000 visitors in the first week of operation. 

More than a few famous writers and philosophists gained entry, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Karl Marx, and Bram Stoker.

Eventually, the growing collection required a new location to accommodate it and the increasing number of visitors. You can now find the books in the British Library at St Pancras.

We hope you enjoy these British museum facts and are inspired to learn more about history either as a personal exploration or as a career.