January 21, 2014
A Birthday For The British Museum
Every major tourist destination in the world has its favorite attractions. In Europe we are blessed with sights galore for the visitor; Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Louvre with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Rome has the Coliseum, not to mention the Vatican, Athens the Acropolis, and Venice its unique landscape and waterways like the Grand Canal as well as ancient buildings and squares to explore. These are just a small selection of the sights awaiting the traveller exploring Europe. But a lot of these attractions are expensive to enter and long queues can be a big problem. Tourists coming to London, however, might find similar long lines from time to time, but one thing it does have is a lot of fantastic attractions that are, incredibly in this day and age, free to explore. I wrote here recently about one such attraction, The British Library. But its much bigger and more famous counterpart, The British Museum, celebrated its 255th anniversary this week. This huge building with so many of the world’s great treasures is still open to all without payment.
The first visitors were allowed into the British Museum on the 15th of January 1759, the year in which Britain defeated France at the Battle of Quebec to take control of Canada and a mere 14 years before the Boston Tea Party! The Museum began its life in Montague House, a grand home which it had acquired from the 2nd Duke of Montague. In those early days, there were around 75 visitors a day and exhibits like the skull of a Rhinoceros Hornbill and works by the likes of Albrecht Durer would have seemed very alien to those first Londoners to take the tour.
Today the Museum counts its annual visitors in the millions and announced this week that 2013 was the best ever for visitor numbers with 6,702,036 people passing through the doors during the year. On the busiest day, a very wet Friday in August, a record 33,848 took advantage of the free shelter. Not all of the visitors are foreigners, of course, and in 2013 60 percent were UK residents, a big change from 2012, the year of the London Olympics, when 75 percent were from overseas.
The Museum has so many varied exhibits, mostly arranged in themed rooms, that it is impossible to describe them here. But if you can’t get there the website is a great way to explore what is on offer. I have been to the British Museum many times and still don’t feel as though I have exhausted its riches and still manage to lose my way from time to time in the maze like corridors.
As well as the permanent exhibits on display, there are always special exhibitions and events on offer, though some of these presentations charge an entrance fee. Nevertheless, they are always a big attraction. 850,000 people visited a display featuring China’s Terracotta Army in 2007, but it is unlikely that the record of 1.6 million who saw the Tutankhamun exhibition that caused such a stir in 1972 will ever be beaten.
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