The British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary on 7th June, 2003. Founded by an Act of Parliament, the British Museum was the first national public museum in the world – the first to belong to a nation rather than a monarch or private patron, established for the nation’s benefit, its collection available to every citizen, to all ‘studious and curious’ people regardless of rank or status, free of charge.
From the very beginning, the British Museum has seen itself as a world museum, at first in the sense that its collection was drawn from across the world; more recently in the sense that it is for the world, reflecting a global heritage to its increasing numbers of visitors from Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas as well as from Britain itself. More than five million people visit it every year, making it, together with the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, one of the world’s most popular museums.
The ideals of its founders are as crucial to our future today as they were in 1753, in a world where competing nationalisms and cultures still obscure our common humanity. The British Museum’s role is to display the world’s great civilisations and cultures, and through their display to tell the story of human achievement, across the world and through its ages. Its treasures and everyday artefacts allow us to glimpse and understand the lives of the people who made them. The museum exists to give understanding and meaning to our life past and present.
Now with the return of the Museum of Mankind, the British Museum reaffirms its universality and will once again become a place where the visitor can meet all the peoples and cultures of the world, past and present, under a single roof. By displaying their art and craft, their rituals of birth and death, and of love and work and worship, the museum reveals the richness of their relationship to each other as well as their differences. The present position of the British Museum has never been more relevant and important as a fascinating and accessible means of explaining the historical and cultural background of the modern world; how it came to be.
It continues to be not just a treasure house of objects, but a living collection and active centre of education, research and discovery for its visitors. With the opening of the spectacular Great Court in 2000 the experience of visiting the Museum has been transformed, and its position as one of the most popular and dynamic museums in the world has been consolidated. Its guiding principle since its foundation has been, and will continue to be, free access to everyone.