'Fortune reigns in gifts of the world'
British Museum celebrates a year of generosity with gifts from button badges to Picasso

Wednesday 4 July 2012

The British Museum (BM) this morning presents a review of its activity in 2011/12 ahead of the opening of its major summer exhibition 'Shakespeare: staging the world', supported by BP.

The collection is the lifeblood of the Museum and in 2011/12 the BM was fortunate to be able to acquire a wide range of objects, from the large-scale to the humble, due to the unstinting generosity of individual donors, fundraising bodies and foundations. Acquisitions include: the funding from Hamish Parker to acquire a complete set of Picasso's Vollard Suite produced in the 1930s (currently drawing crowds to the Prints and Drawings gallery); an extraordinary set of 17th century private tokens from London which provided small change for local goods and services across the city; and the Museum's most recent acquisition – made just last week was a donation of a pin badge commemorating the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the UK, which shows her as a modern saint with the London Eye as a halo. All acquisitions both large and small ensure that the Museum continues to reflect world culture, both ancient and contemporary.

Equally important is the display of the collection. Thanks to funding from Citi we have been able to re-display the BM's pre-eminent collection of coins and banknotes, presenting a significant new history of the world through the prism of currency. The opening of the gallery at a time of global financial crisis reminds us of the long history of boom and bust, bubbles and slumps. The gallery investigates the extraordinarily wide range of forms money can take and the equally extraordinary range of uses to which people have put their money over the centuries. Future galleries include a major redisplay of the gallery of early modern Europe, looking at the wider world of Sutton Hoo. This has been made possible by a generous donation from Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock. The BM's collections on this period are among the best in the world and reach from North Africa to Scandinavia and from the Atlantic to the Asian Steppes. The new display will open in 2013/14. In addition the Museum can announce generous new funding from the Rothschild Foundation to support the re-display of the famous Waddesdon Bequest. The bequest was originally made to the Museum in 1898 and is one of the most remarkable collections of its kind, a group of almost 300 objects of medieval and renaissance jewellery, metalwork, glass and ceramics including the extraordinary Holy Thorn Reliquary and the Lyte Jewel (which will feature in the Shakespeare exhibition). The collection will be displayed in its entirety in an original Smirke designed room beyond the Enlightenment Gallery.

Funding for the Museum's major capital project, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre received a further £10 million funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund ensuring the project is now nearly 90% funded. Building work continues and the Centre will open in March 2014 with a major exhibition on the Vikings. The BP exhibition (working title The Viking World') is a collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark and the Museum for Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and will emphasise the significance of the Vikings in a global context, rather than in the usual focus on northern Europe and the North Atlantic. The Viking age was a period of major change, both in terms of the Viking impact on neighbouring areas, and the introduction of external influences into Scandinavia. Viking Scandinavia was more diverse than previously recognised, and drew external influences from both Christian Europe and the Islamic World. The exhibition will explore these cultural influences, and will highlight recent reinterpretations of the Vikings. It will include major finds never seen before in the UK, including a purpose-built representation of the longest Viking ship ever found, the warship 'Roskilde 6'. At 37m long it will incorporate the surviving elements of the ship in a framework which indicates the total size and shape of the ship, and highlights the capacity of the new exhibition space. In addition to objects from Scandinavia and the UK, the exhibition will also include finds from Russia and eastern Europe, as well as treasures from the BM's own collection including the Vale of York hoard, found in 2007. The BM version of the exhibition will also include a section on the continued legacy of the Vikings in the UK today.

The generosity of the Dorset Foundation and money from the Art Fund Prize has supported the BM's national programmes across the UK. A series of Spotlight Tours of single objects begins with the loan of an important sculpture of Herakles travel to Bexhill, followed by the Gayer Anderson Egyptian Cat to Shetland and the Mildenhall Great Dish to Suffolk. The Dorset Foundation has committed funds to support national activity for the next three years. This will include a major new touring exhibition which will explore the diversity of the Roman Empire and a partnership gallery at Lews Castle, Shetland.

2011/12 in numbers

Visitor figures

The British Museum received over 5.8 million visitors in 2011/2012, and is the most popular cultural attraction in the UK for a fifth year running

Temporary exhibitions

  • Grayson Perry: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman was seen by 117,000 visitors.
  • Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam was seen by 140,000 visitors. 66% from a black and minority ethnic background with 47% Muslim attendance.
  • Future exhibitions in 2013 will look at Ice Age art and the archaeology of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The BP exhibition 'The Viking World' will open in 2014.

Free exhibitions

  • Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite has received 147,000k visitors in the first 8 weeks.
  • 'The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot', the Museum's Diamond Jubilee exhibition has been seen by over 59k visitors since it opened on the 24th May.

Online and On Air

Online visitors increased by 35% to more than 11.7 million to britishmuseum.org 

Total visits to all BM websites were over 23 million.

  • The BM's Chinese site received 2.3 million visits in the last year, double the figure on the previous year.
  • Online collection records grew to over 2 million, the largest figure of any comparable museum or gallery.
  • Over 28 million downloads of the A History of the World radio programmes worldwide and over 360,000 copies of the accompanying book have been sold worldwide.
  • The RAJAR's for the radio series 'Shakespeare's Restless World' recorded an average weekly reach across the 2 slots of at least 4m adults. The accompanying book for the series will be published by Penguin in September 2012.


The BM now raises nearly 50% its income from fundraising and other revenue generating activity matching every pound it receives from the government. Fundraising is now the second largest income stream after government funding.

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre received additional support with a generous award of £10million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in January 2012

  • The project is nearly 90% funded through philanthropy and underwriting.
  • £118million out of the total project costs of £135 million raised.


  • Renewed its longstanding partnership with the Museum resulting in a five-year programme of special exhibitions. This commences with the BP Exhibition 'The Viking World' in March 2014.
  • For the first time, BP will support a BM exhibition abroad when 'Mummy: the inside story' opens in Mumbai in November 2012.

National Programmes

Partnership work undertaken by the BM is estimated to have added 942k additional visitors to UK museums.

  • In 2011/12 the BM loaned 1196 objects nationally across the UK to 70 venues.
  • Major successes included the tour of Pharaoh: King of Egypt which attracted 155,000 visitors to the Great North Museum in Newcastle and led to a 430% increase in visitors to the Dorset County Museum.
  • The tour of 'China: Journey to the East', supported by BP, an exhibition of BM collection objects sent around the UK was the most successful of the BM's touring exhibitions and was seen by over 450,000 people.
  • Future support of the BM's National Programmes has been committed by the Dorset Foundation.

International programmes

The Museum continued to develop collaborative partnerships across the world

Leadership Training Programme, India

  • The Museum recently completed a bespoke training programme for future museum leaders in India.
  • Developed with the Indian Ministry of Culture and the National Culture Fund of India it involved 20 museum professionals from across India being trained across a wide variety of disciplines.


  • 1294 objects were lent internationally to 102 venues outside the country. Highlights included Chinese and European porcelain in Beijing, Egyptian Mummies in Australia and classical sculpture in Mexico and Japan.


For further information please contact
Olivia Rickman – 020 7323 8583, orickman@britishmuseum.org
Claire Coveney – 020 7323 8394, ccoveney@britishmuseum.org
Hannah Boulton – 020 7323 8522, hboulton@britishmuseum.org