Bloomsbury was built over in grid-plan style from the 1660s onwards, and the formal bourgeois Georgian squares laid out then remain the area’s main distinguishing feature. In the twentieth century, Bloomsbury acquired a reputation as the city’s most learned quarter, dominated by the dual institutions of the British Museum and London University, but perhaps best known for its literary inhabitants, among them T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Today, the British Museum is clearly the star attraction, but there are other minor sights, such as the Charles Dickens Museum. Only in its northern fringes does the character of the area change dramatically, as you near the hustle and bustle of Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross train stations.
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The British Museum is one of the great museums of the world. With more than 70,000 exhibits ranged over several miles of galleries, it boasts a huge collection of antiquities, prints and drawings – more than 13 million objects (and growing). Its assortment of Roman and Greek art is unparalleled, its Egyptian collection is the most significant outside Egypt and, in addition, there are fabulous treasures from Anglo-Saxon and Roman Britain, from China, Japan, India and Mesopotamia.
The building itself, begun in 1823, is the grandest of London’s Greek Revival edifices, dominated by the giant Ionian colonnade and portico that forms the main entrance. At the heart of the museum is the Great Court, with its remarkable, curving glass-and-steel roof, designed by Norman Foster. At the centre stands the copper-domed former Round Reading Room, built in the 1850s to house the British Library. It was here, reputedly at desk O7, that Karl Marx penned Das Kapital.
The most famous of the Roman and Greek antiquities are the Parthenon sculptures, better known as the Elgin Marbles, after the British aristocrat who walked off with the reliefs in 1801. The Egyptian collection of monumental sculptures is impressive, but it’s the ever-popular mummies that draw the biggest crowds. Also on display is the Rosetta Stone, which finally unlocked the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphs. There’s a splendid series of Assyrian reliefs, depicting events such as the royal lion hunts of Ashurbanipal, in which the king slaughters one of the cats with his bare hands.
The leathery half-corpse of the 2000-year-old Lindow Man, discovered in a Cheshire bog, and the Anglo-Saxon treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, are among the highlights of the prehistoric and Romano-British section. The medieval and modern collections, meanwhile, range from the twelfth-century Lewis chessmen, carved from walrus ivory, to twentieth-century exhibits such as a copper vase by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The dramatically lit Mexican and North American galleries, plus the African galleries in the basement, represent just a small fraction of the museum’s ethnographic collection, while select works from the BM’s enormous collection of prints and drawings can be seen in special exhibitions. Among fabulous Oriental treasures in the north wing, closest to the back entrance on Montague Place, are ancient Chinese porcelain, ornate snuffboxes, miniature landscapes, and a bewildering array of Buddhist and Hindu gods.