7 Interesting Facts About The British Museum

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 90 months ago

Last Updated 30 January 2017

7 Interesting Facts About The British Museum

The British Museum is the big daddy of London museums. It's the biggest, the most popular and one of the oldest. That should mean it has loads of hidden bits to discover. We did some investigating.

Photo: Steve Bell

It wasn't always so busy

Nowadays, the British Museum is the nation's most visited museum, with nearly seven million guests per year. Back when it first opened in 1759, it was rather more exclusive. The museum was open to the public, but they had to make a written application to obtain tickets. Once they were approved, only ten tickets were dispensed every hour — rather different to the thronging masses crowding around the Rosetta Stone these days.

It's given birth to a few other institutions

The British Museum originated when Sir Hans Sloane — in his will — offered Parliament the chance to buy his works of art, antiques and natural history collection. That's right, the Natural History museum was originally part of the British Museum, and they didn't officially separate until 1963. The British Library followed a similar path in 1973, when it too amicably divorced itself from the British Museum.

The Bodhissatava Tara was an occupant of the Secretum. Photo: Phil Rogers

The Secretum

What's more secret than a secretum? The British Museum's secretum, or as it was originally titled, the Cabinet of Obscene Objects, was created in the wake of 1857's Obscene Publications Act. It had about 200 objects that were labelled by the museum curator as 'abominable monuments to human licentiousness'. The room was only available to gentlemen with a special permit. They needed to show 'mature years and sound morals' to qualify for this; we envisage a rigid Victorian test to determine whether one was worthy enough to enter.

Snail resurrection

The world record for the longest period spent 'dead' before reanimation, goes to a snail donated to the museum in 1846. It was part of an exhibit which featured snails — believed dead — from Egypt and Greece. After four years (snails are notoriously speedy, after all), zoologist William Baird noticed that one of them had started producing a strange mucus like membrane in an apparent attempt to stop it drying out. The snail was rescued and rehoused with a living partner, where it saw another two years of life, before finally biting the dust.

Photo: Gareth Evans

Sharing is caring

The British Museum has generated a lot of controversy for its refusal to return certain objects to their country of origin. It's less widely known that the museum loans out more objects than any other global institution. In 2015/16 this amounted to over 5,000 objects touring internationally.

It had its own tube station

Between 1900 and 1933, the British Museum had its very own tube station. The route was on the Central London Railway, better known today as the Central Line. The station was between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, a spot on the map now occupied by Holborn. Holborn was the British Museum station's downfall; it was situated less than 100 metres away and was better connected than the British Museum stop. In 1933 Central Line trains started stopping at Holborn, and the British Museum station was entirely demolished.

The British Museum tube station. © TfL, from London Transport Museum Collection

Where to go to the toilet

All the other factoids in this article might help your pub quiz team, but this one has practical life value. Using the toilets in the basement of the British Museum is a terrible experience. They're usually rammed, and you'll find yourself wasting valuable antique-gazing time queueing. That's why we recommend heading to the toilets at the back of the museum near the Asian galleries. No one seems to know about them — sorry if we're letting the cat out of the bag — so they save you time. They do usually have a slightly funky smell that you'll have to put up with though.

With thanks to The British Museum.