The British Museum was established by Act of Parliament in 1753, and from the following year found its first home in Montagu House, an aristocratic residence on the site of the present museum in Bloomsbury, London. The foundation collection was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Hans Sloane, a wealthy physician and collector who died in 1753, in exchange for a payment of £20,000 to his two daughters. In addition to Sloane's collection of objects and his library, the original British Museum contained four other major collections of books. As a result, a Principal Librarian served as director of the three departments of the museum: Printed Books (including prints); Manuscripts (including coins and drawings); and Natural and Artificial Productions, which included everything from sculpture to mineral samples, mummies to zoological specimens. In January 1759 the British Museum opened its doors to the public.
Since the Act of 1753 embodied the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, which considered all the arts and sciences to be connected, the Museum's job was to advance all fields of knowledge for scholars, 'the curious' and for the use and benefit of the public. As a storehouse of knowledge, the British Museum aimed to collect everything. This led inevitably to expansion and the need for larger quarters in which to house the growing collections. Between 1823 and 1847 the original building was replaced by four large wings built around a central courtyard. The library continued to grow at such a pace that a new reading room was needed. Work began in 1854 on the construction of the new domed Round Reading Room in the central courtyard.
In the 1860s the need for a new building to house the growing natural history collections was recognised, and in 1881 the new Museum of Natural History opened to the public. By 1973 the British Library and British Museum were administratively separated and in the 1990s work on a new library building began. The new British Library opened in 1999, presenting an opportunity to the British Museum to expand and modernise. In 2000 the British Museum opened the Great Court, envisioned as a sunny piazza at the centre of the building, but with up-to-date facilities such as lecture theatres, restaurants, a lunchroom for school children and shops.
The Museum’s foundation collection included a few Islamic objects, which were greatly augmented in the 19th and 20th centuries by purchases, gifts and bequests. With the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum contains the most significant holdings of Iznik ceramics in the world. Other strengths include medieval Islamic inlaid metalwork, archaeological collections, works on paper and enamelled glass. The collection, including archaeological material, consists of about 40,000 objects.