In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British colonial aristocracy and rich merchants filled their houses with valuable paintings, sculptures, furniture and ornaments which they brought back from their travels abroad and particularly from the colonies they robbed so mercilessly. So their collections can be seen today in museums, country houses, palaces and castles. There are museums and art galleries in most cities.
The national museums and art galleries in London contain some of the most comprehensive collections of objects of artistic, archeological, scientific, historical and general interest. They are the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Geological Museum, the Natural History Museum. There are national museums and art galleries in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Edinburgh — the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, the Royal Scottish Museum; in Cardiff — the National Museum of Wales; in Belfast — the Ulster Museum.
Situated in Bloomsbury, just off Tottenham Court Road, the British Museum is the world's largest museum and was built between 1823 and 1852. Its magnificent library has the right, by law, to one copy of every publication printed in Britain. Things to single out include the Rosetta Stone in the Southern Egyptian Gallery, and, in the manuscript room, the Magna Gharta, Nelson's log book and Scott's last diary.
The Victoria and Albert Museum displays fine and applied art of all countries and periods. Worth seeking out are the costume displays, the rooms of different historical periods, the jewellery and porcelain, the celebrated Raphael cartoons belonging to the Crown and the best collection of English miniatures to be found in the country.
The National Gallery exhibits all schools of European paintings from the 13th to the 19th century and includes works by Van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, Holbein, El Greco, Goya, Velasquez, Gainsborough and Leonardo da Vinci. It also includes the largest collection of Rembrandts outside Holland. There are over thirty rooms in the Gallery and lectures are given regularly by experts.
The Tate Gallery is really three galleries: a national gallery of British art, a gallery of modern sculpture and a gallery of modern foreign paintings. Among the treasures to be found are modern sculpture by Rodin, Moore and Epstein
The Natural History Museum is the home of the national collections of living and fossil plants and animals. It also has collections of rocks, minerals and meteorites. The building of the Museum, which is over one hundred years old, also houses a scientific research institution.
The Science Museum houses the national collections of science, industry and medicine. Many exhibits are full size and there are many historic objects of scientific and technological significance. Additionally there are exhibits sectioned to show their internal construction, and working models.
Of great scientific and public interest are the Geological Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the London Museum and many others.
Most cities and towns have museums devoted to arts, archaeology, and natural history, usually administered by the local authorities but sometimes by local learned societies or by individuals or trustees. Both Oxford and Cambridge are rich in museums, many of them associated with the universities, such as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, founded in 1683, the oldest in the world, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Many private art collections in historic family mansions, including those owned by the National Trust, are open to the public, while an increasing number of open air museums depict the regional life of an area or preserve early industrial remains.
A major expansion in the number of museums is taking place and many are introducing new display techniques that attract increasing numbers of visitors. Over 68 million people a year attend the 2,000 or so museums and galleries open to the public, which include the major national collections and a wide variety of municipally and independently or privately owned institutions.