Museum stories
Collecting and empire

The British Museum was founded in 1753 with a collection of more than 80,000 ‘natural and artificial rarities’, over 40,000 books and manuscripts, and 32,000 coins and medals. Since then, the collection has grown enormously, and now contains around eight million objects.

Objects have entered the Museum’s collection through many different routes – some have been acquired directly, for example through excavation or purchase, while others have passed through different owners, sometimes over a long period of time. The Museum continues to actively collect today. In the case of objects acquired in earlier centuries, it’s not always clear exactly how they were collected because the details were not recorded at the time.

The Museum is committed to researching the collection to better understand the provenance of objects where our knowledge is incomplete. The British Museum’s history and collection are intimately linked to the history of the British Empire and the era of European colonialism. The wealth generated from the expansion of Britain’s global empire and from its exploitation of resources and people, especially through the transatlantic slave trade, enabled the growth of collections such as those of the British Museum. The Museum is working with others around the world to ensure that the varied, and sometimes complicated and contested, history of collecting is acknowledged and debated.

As the Museum reopens, we are encouraging visitors to follow a new Collecting and empire trail to find out more about the complex, varied – and sometimes controversial – ways in which objects have become part of the collection. Further objects will be added in the months ahead as other galleries reopen to the public, and as collaborative work on Collecting and empire interventions progresses. The trail will be evaluated to help inform future plans to develop new permanent gallery displays.

Here are some of the objects that the trail explores.

Lion statues of Amenhotep III

Image of red granite lion sculpture.
Granite statue of Amenhotep III as a lion. Upper Nubia (present-day Sudan), 1390–1352 BC.

These colossal granite lions were donated to the British Museum by Lord Prudhoe, the Duke of Northumberland, in 1835. The statues’ history stretches back several thousand years to when they were commissioned by pharaoh Amenhotep III (about 1390–1352 BC) for the Temple of Soleb in Upper Nubia (northern Sudan), then a colony of pharaonic Egypt. Around 1,100 years later, when the powerful and independent kingdom of Kush ruled the area, these already ancient sculptures were shipped 420 km south up the Nile to a royal palace at Jebel Barkal.

Egyptian rulers tended to think of northern Sudan as an extension of their territory, both in ancient times and during the 19th century. When Lord Prudhoe visited Jebel Barkal in 1829, he and his party were travelling into a Sudan recently conquered by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt. This ushered in over a century of Egyptian control, and then Anglo-Egyptian rule, with an intervening period of Sudanese rule under the Mahdi (1881–1898).

While in Jebel Barkal, Lord Prudhoe arranged the shipment of the lions to England. The British Consul General in Cairo helped secure the necessary firmans (permissions) from the authorities. Lord Prudhoe then donated the lions to the British Museum in 1835.

Lord Prudhoe described Kushite architecture as ‘a very bad copy of Egyptian, bad in design and worse in execution’. For him, the presence of these Egyptian lions at Jebel Barkal reflected a Kushite desire to emulate Egypt. However, the lions are now seen as examples of Kushite creativity in incorporating aspects of Egyptian pharaonic culture within the context of long established local traditions.

You can see the lions in Room 4: Egyptian sculpture.

The Nereid Monument

Image of Nereid Monument in the British Museum.
The Nereid Monument, Xanthus, Turkey, 390–380 BC.

In the early 1840s Charles Fellows, a traveller and antiquary, led two archaeological expeditions to Lycia (on the south western coast of modern-day Turkey). He obtained the permission of the Ottoman Sultanate in Constantinople (Istanbul), to excavate at the ancient city of Xanthos. It was there that Fellows discovered the Nereid Monument, lying in ruins. Once a firman had been secured, Fellows began to excavate and remove the ruined monuments, with funding from the British Museum. The Royal Navy helped move the heavy stone pieces down the River Xanthos to the ship HMS Beacon, and onward to Malta before being shipped to Britain.

Within the Turkish Ottoman empire lay many sites with ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman monuments. During the 19th century, permissions were granted to a number of British, French and German archaeological expeditions to excavate these sites and remove objects and architecture. The first Decree legislating against the export of antiquities from Ottoman territories was issued in 1869. In the same year, the Sultan Abdulaziz ordered the creation of what would become the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Ongoing excavations led by Turkish archaeologists are now providing new information on the ancient site of Xanthos, but the exact design of the Nereid Monument, and the positioning of its sculptures, is still debated.

Read more about the monument here and see it on display in Room 17.

Kwakawak’wakw mask

Image of wood and leather mask.
Wood and leather mask, Canada, c.1910.

This mask was created by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest Coast in Canada (First Nation community). It is currently on long-term loan at the Kwakwaka’wakw-run U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Representing an ancestral being or Crest, the mask can be opened to reveal a separate figure within.

It would have been worn as part of a ceremonial celebration called a potlatch, in which rights and titles are publicly acknowledged. Hosting and participating in potlatches was banned by a Canadian Act of Parliament, the Indian Act, in 1884. In 1921, the Canadian authorities discovered a potlatch hosted by Chief Dan Cranmer on Village Island in British Columbia. They arrested and imprisoned a number of participants, as well as seizing and confiscating masks and regalia, including this one.

The Canadian government sold many of these masks to North American museums. This mask was sold in 1938 by what is now known as the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian. Harry Beasley, a British collector and founder of the now-defunct Cranmore Ethnographic Museum acquired the object and in 1944, his wife, Irene Beasley, donated it to the British Museum.

Gloria Cranmer Webster – an anthropologist and daughter of Chief Dan Cranmer – identified the mask from a 1922 photograph of seized regalia. In 2005, after years of careful discussions, the U’mista Cultural Centre and the British Museum agreed a long-term loan of the mask to Alert Bay.

This text was written in consultation with U’mista Cultural Centre, Canada.

Read more about the mask here.

Akan Drum

Image of drum on black background.
Akan drum, Ghana, early 18th century.

This wooden drum is the earliest African-American object in the British Museum. It was made by Akan people in West Africa over 300 years ago. The first enslaved Africans arrived in North America in 1619 and it is assumed the drum crossed the Atlantic aboard a slave ship, but this is not known for certain. Drums were played during these journeys and captives were forced to dance for exercise in order to keep them healthier – amid the horrendous conditions – for labour on slave plantations. In North America, drums were confiscated and banned as part of the forced suppression of Africans and their culture.

Around 1730, a Reverend Clerk acquired the drum – it is not recorded how – in Virginia, then a British colony and now a state within the USA. The drum passed from him to Museum founder Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) in England where it became part of his collection, incorrectly recorded as a drum made by the Indigenous Peoples of North America. Scientific examination revealed that the main body of the drum is made from a variety of wood found in West Africa (and other parts of Africa) but not North America.

Sloane’s career as a collector began in 1687 when he became physician to the Governor of Jamaica, then a British colony. Sloane worked as a doctor on plantations worked by enslaved people. With assistance from English planters and enslaved people he assembled a collection of around 800 plant specimens, animals, local tools and personal items. On returning from the Caribbean Sloane married an heiress to Jamaican sugar plantations worked by enslaved people, profits from which allowed him to greatly expand his collections.

In his will, Sloane bequeathed his entire collection to the public in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. Sloane’s collection, with several additional libraries and collections, became the foundation of the British Museum.

You can read more about the life and collection of Hans Sloane here, or by visiting a newly updated display about Sloane’s collecting and his relationship with empire and slavery in Case 14, Room 1, at the British Museum.

Guests Miranda Lowe and James Delbourgo join Director Hartwig Fischer and curator Sushma Jansari for a special podcast episode focusing on Hans Sloane. They examine the role of slavery and enslaved people in his collecting practices and consider how museums should respond to these histories. Listen here.

In another special podcast episode, Hartwig Fischer and Sushma Jansari are joined by guests Olivette Otele and Bonnie Greer to discuss the legacies of slavery, its impact on today’s society, and how museums should respond to these histories both now and in the future. Listen here.

Soup plate from China

Image of painted porcelain plate on black background.
Porcelain soup plate, China, 1743.

This soup plate is from a porcelain dinner service commissioned by Commodore Lord Anson of the British East India Company. Lord Anson led the East India Company on a circumnavigation of the world in 1743 – it was on a visit to Canton in China during this journey that he commissioned this set of porcelain.

European and American direct trade with China was dominated by the Honourable East India Company, which held a monopoly from 1672 until 1833. The East India Company traded many commodities including, in the early 19th century, opium that was grown in India and bought for recreational and medicinal use. The refusal of the Company to reduce this trade when challenged by Qing government officials led to the First Opium War (1839–1842). The Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war, forced the Qing emperors to open further ‘Treaty Ports’ for international trade.

The plate was bequeathed to the Museum by Anson’s relative, politician Thomas George Anson, 2nd Earl of Lichfield (1825–1892). The rest of the service is in the National Trust property of Shugborough in Staffordshire, Anson’s ancestral home.

Read more about this object here and see it on display in Room 1.

Bark shield

Image of bark shield.
Bark and wood shield, New South Wales, Australia, late 18th – early 19th century.

This shield, of bark and red mangrove wood, is from New South Wales, Australia, and dates to the late 18th or early 19th century. The size and shape of the hole near the centre suggest it was pierced by a spear. Broad shields such as this were used as defensive weapons against spears. There is no specific record of how this object came to the Museum. Although once thought to have been collected in 1770 by James Cook or Joseph Banks at Kamay (Botany Bay, near Sydney), it may have been obtained from its owner between about 1790 and 1815 and sent to London by a colonial governor or other collector.

Australia has been inhabited for at least 60,000 years. Permanent British occupation began in 1788 with a ‘First Fleet’ of ships carrying convicts to establish a penal colony at present day Sydney.  The Eora people of the Sydney region suffered the first brunt of British colonisation. Despite loss of population due to disease and frontier violence as well as displacement, Aboriginal people continue to live in the Sydney region maintaining strong bonds with their traditional lands and culture.

The shield is the earliest known Aboriginal shield from Australia and has come to symbolise British colonisation of Australia and its ongoing legacy which still affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia today.

Read more about the shield and discussions around this object here.

You can explore our new Collecting and empire trail around the Museum when we reopen. The free trail highlights 15 objects and provides more information about each has entered the collection, and more will be added when further galleries are opened. A PDF leaflet with a map is available to help you locate the objects.  If you stop at each object the trail will take around 60–70 minutes to complete. Read more here.

The Museum is developing plans for new displays to better acknowledge the intellectual, economic and social origins of the collection, and the future role of the collection in Britain and the world.