Ethnographical Galleries (view of Asia Section), British 亿博体育app, London, 1908

Collecting histories

The British 亿博体育app's collection has grown in many ways over the past three centuries, starting with the 1753 Act of Parliament which purchased for the public?Sir Hans Sloane's collection of over 80,000 items.?

Below are some examples of the myriad ways in which objects have entered the collection, from excavation to purchase, donations or commissions from individuals, conflict and colonial activity.?


Research into the history of the collection as a whole, and of individual objects in it, is ongoing.?This involves object-based and archival research both in the British 亿博体育app itself and elsewhere. Many objects have been a part of the collection for hundreds of years so it's not always possible to know their full history.

Some ways in which objects entered the British 亿博体育app are no longer current or acceptable, though others remain familiar.?Objects continue to be collected?to ensure the collection remains relevant and representative today and into the future.?

If you're interested in researching the collections of the British 亿博体育app you can use our?study facilities?where you can examine objects, archives, and use our libraries. Alternatively,?look at??which records all the ongoing research we do into the history and provenance of all the objects in the 亿博体育app.

Donations and bequests

Donations and bequests

A significant proportion of the British 亿博体育app's collection was donated or bequeathed to the 亿博体育app, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For example,?The Sutton Hoo collection?was generously donated by?Edith Pretty,?the landowner of the site where the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial was found in 1939.

Donations and bequests

The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of nearly 300 objects, left to the 亿博体育app in 1898 by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild.

It consists of exceptionally important medieval and Renaissance pieces and is on display in?Room 2a.

Further gifts continue to this day. In 2003, the modern prints and drawing collection of the Evening Standard's film critic Alexander Walker were given in a bequest and included important works by Matisse, Bridget Riley and many?other 20th century artists.


The British 亿博体育app has acquired many objects from archaeological digs across the world. Excavations continue to this day, from the Caribbean to the Nile Valley, with modern archaeology focusing on answering research questions that provide context to the British 亿博体育app collections.

Austen Henry Layard excavated a number of major Assyrian sites?in what is now Iraq?between 1845 and 1851, largely funded by the wealthy British Ambassador to Constantinople Stratford Canning. He was assisted by Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian born in Mosul (Iraq), who then continued the excavations when Layard left to take up a diplomatic career.?Canning was keen to see Assyrian sculptures displayed in Britain and he obtained authorisation from the Ottoman government to export some of the finds to London, while other finds remained in situ in Iraq.?

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many governments practised partage: where a part of the finds from excavations would stay in the country, with the remainder donated to the foreign excavating organisation.?Between 1884 and 1886, renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie excavated the Greek trading centre of Naukratis in the Egyptian Nile Delta, on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Over 18,000 objects were discovered and shared between the Egyptian 亿博体育app in Cairo and 70 other countries, including nearly 8,000 that came to the British 亿博体育app. An ongoing major research project combines a re-assessment of these objects and new fieldwork.

The British 亿博体育app continues to participate in excavations across the globe in collaboration with partners in host countries. Over the last four years archaeologists from the 亿博体育app have worked with colleagues in Iraq?on two sites, Tello in southern Iraq and Darband-i-Rania in Iraqi Kurdistan, as part of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme.

Colonial government and missionary activity

The British Empire had a significant impact on the collection of the British 亿博体育app, as officials, diplomats, missionaries and travellers acquired both large and small collections in the countries under British rule where they visited or lived.?

The collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), developed while he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java in the 1810s, came to the 亿博体育app through his heirs and descendants. Research into how, where, and why he collected has enabled modern collaborative research and displays with colleagues in Indonesia and Singapore.?


The British 亿博体育app acknowledges the difficult histories of some of its collections, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired such as through military action and its consequences. In other instances, collections may be acquired during a period of conflict but the exact circumstances of how they were acquired are not known. The British 亿博体育app is actively engaged in re-examining the acquisition histories of such collections and caring for them with appropriate respect, in close dialogue with colleagues and partners from countries around the world.

One such example is?the Benin Bronzes. During a large-scale military expedition against the West African Kingdom of Benin in 1897, Benin City and its historic palaces were systematically looted for art works by British troops. There are over 900 objects from Benin in the 亿博体育app's collection, including many which entered the collection immediately after the military expedition. The 亿博体育app is engaged in sustained dialogue with partner institutions and colleagues in Benin City and Nigeria regarding these objects, and is committed to a thorough and open investigation of Benin collection histories.

The British 亿博体育app purchased the?handscroll painting? (known as the Admonitions Scroll) from Captain Clarence Johnson (1870–1937) in 1903. Johnson was sent to Beijing in 1900 with the British Indian Army during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising. It is not certain how he acquired the painting which was in the Forbidden City, Beijing during the 18th century but the action took place in the context of the Boxer Rebellion and its suppression by foreign troops from eight nations. This important work is now housed in a bespoke case in Room 91a and made available for public viewing around six weeks each year following a convening of international experts in 2013 to discuss its conservation and display.?



Many important objects in the 亿博体育app's collection from the British Isles were acquired as a result of laws related to buried treasure. For centuries, valuable metal items?hidden or buried by their owners for later recovery were deemed to be the property of the Crown.

The law was changed in England and Wales in 1996 to encourage finders of ancient items over 300 years old to report their discoveries through the?Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Purchase and commissions

Over the years?The British 亿博体育app has bought large parts of its collection from individual collectors, dealers?and the commercial market, developing and expanding upon the founding collections.

An example was the collection of Edward Hawkins who worked as a curator for over 35 years in the 19th century. On his retirement in 1860, the museum purchased his significant , one of the earliest being a 1524 medal of Henry VIII.

Purchase and commissions

The British 亿博体育app is still actively collecting in the 21st century to ensure the collection remains relevant. We purchase objects, and also commission works from artists including those working in indigenous traditions or in contemporary idioms exploring contemporary issues.?

In 2015?the 亿博体育app commissioned two?Moko Jumbie?figures from British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové. They were purchased with generous funding from the Miles Morland Foundation (MMF) and with additional contributions from the Vigo Gallery (representing Zak Ové) and the artist.?

Purchases and commissions

In 2019?the 亿博体育app purchased the set of 'Cowboy Angels' woodcuts by British artist Yinke Shonibare with the aid of the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation. They're the first work by the artist to enter the 亿博体育app's collection.

Purchases and commissions

Known as the Lampedusa Cross, and acquired in 2015, this object was made by Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter on the Italian island of Lampedusa. A boat sank off the coast in October 2013, with only 151 of the 500 African refugees on board surviving. The cross is made of two timbers from the boat.?