Founded by Parliament in 1753, the British Museum was the first national, public museum in the world. Located at Montagu House in Bloomsbury, the gardens opened in 1757 and the museum in 1759, with a beginning collection of over 71,000 antiquities donated by physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane.
Initially, the collections were split into three sections: printed books and prints; manuscripts including medals; and natural and artificial productions. By 1809, this had been separated into four: printed books; manuscripts; natural history and modern artificial curiosities; antiquities, coins, drawings and engravings. Entry was free to everyone.
During the early decades of the British Museum, many rare artifacts – some the first in any museum – were displayed. These include the first ancient Egyptian mummy (1756); ethnographic artifacts from Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages, including a Tahitian mourner’s dress (1756); a live tortoise from North America (1765); Saxon coins (1802); the Rosetta Stone (1802); sculptures from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae (1815); the Parthenon sculptures (1816); and George III’s library, donated by George IV (1823).
Over the decades the exhibits grew, with new wings added in order to accommodate. In 1842 the original Montagu House was demolished to allow for further expansion and updating. Eventually, by the 1880s, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington. This became the Natural History Museum, but the British Museum is still located on Great Russell Street where it began.