Established in 1753 as the first publically owned museum in Europe, The British Museum houses more than 7 million objects that illustrate and document human cultural history. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington in 1887. Until 1997, when the British Library opened to the public, it was unique in that it housed both a national museum and library in the same building.
Originally based on the collections of physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, the museum opened to the public on January 15, 1759, in the Montagu House. The first notable addition to the collection of antiquities was by Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artifacts to the museum in 1782. After the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1801 the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculpture and the Rosetta Stone. Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the Towneley collection in 1805 and the Elgin Marbles in 1816. The museum started to outgrow its surroundings. The 1822 donation King George III's personal library of 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawings necessitated a redesign.
The new building's Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 13.7 metres high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance, decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilization, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, was installed in 1852.
The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823-28, followed by the North Wing (now the Welcome Gallery) in 1833-38, and then northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826-31. The Montagu House was demolished from 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing, with its great colonnade, completed in 1847 when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public.
Under the supervision of Italian librarian Antonio Panizzi, called the "second founder", the British Museum Library quintupled in size. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of space and was filled, at Panizzi's request, by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke, from 1854-57. At 42.6 metres in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.
The next major addition was the White Wing in 1882-84 by architect being Sir John Taylor. In 1895 the Trustees purchased the 69 houses surronding the Museum with the intention of filling the block with new galleries. Only the Edward VII galleries in the centre of the North Front were ever constructed, though. It was built from 1906-14 to the design of Sir John James Burnet and now houses the Asian and Islamic collections. The Duveen Gallery, housing the Elgin Marbles, was designed by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938 it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict until reopening in 1962.
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, opened in December 2000 at the center of the museum, is the largest covered square in Europe. Designed by engineering firm Buro Happold and architect Norman Foster, the roof is a glass and steel construction with 1,656 panes of uniquely shaped glass panes. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library.