Queen Elizabeth II and the British Museum

  • Post category:News

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has visited the British Museum no less than 15 times, both before and during her 70-year reign. We take a trip into the archives and find out what happened when Her Majesty came to visit.

An illustration of the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret standing in front of the Rosetta Stone
Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Queen Mary stand near the Rosetta Stone. This drawing appeared in The Illustrated London News on 4 December 1937.

Visiting as a young Princess

The Queen’s first recorded visit to the British Museum was on 22 November 1937, when she was 11 years old and still a Princess. She visited with her sister Princess Margaret, and grandmother Queen Mary. They’re shown in the illustration above with Museum Director Sir John Forsdyke looking at the Rosetta Stone, which was displayed outside of a case at this time. The Illustrated London News records that the Princesses received an hour-and-a-half tour of the Assyrian and Egyptian galleries with the Director. The royal party then went to the upstairs galleries and ‘were so absorbed that they remained considerably longer than they intended’! We know the feeling, Your Majesty!

A black and white photograph of The Queen wearing a long dress, tiara and sash, and walking into a room.
Her Majesty at the Trustees’ reception in 1957, accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the Archbishop of Canterbury

It was 20 years until The Queen came to visit again – on 27 November 1957 – escorted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was one of the Museum’s three Principal Trustees. The visit celebrated the 200th anniversary of the donation by King George II in 1757 (shortly after the Museum’s foundation in 1753) of the Old Royal Library of the sovereigns of England. The Queen took the opportunity to make a further gift – The Royal Music Library – which had been on loan to the British Museum since 1911. A splendid Trustees’ reception in the King’s Library (the room built to house George III’s gift to the nation in 1823 of his personal library) was followed by a white tie dinner. The Royal Music Library consisted of a collection of hand-written music scores by composers such as George Frideric Handel, Henry Purcell, JC Bach and Felix Mendelssohn together with a wide range of printed music. This, and other royal libraries, are now housed in the British Library.

A black and white photograph of The Queen looking at a glass case containing the death mask of Tutankhamun.
Her Majesty visiting the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition, 1972.

The opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition

In 1972, The Queen was among the staggering 1.6 million visitors to the Museum’s exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Tutankhamun’s tomb being discovered by the Earl of Carnavon and Howard Carter. Her Majesty opened the show on 29 March and received a tour of the exhibition. Fifty objects found in the tomb were displayed including the gold portrait mask from this great pharaoh’s mummy, gold jewellery and gold figures of the king. Here The Queen is pictured in front of the incredible gold death mask. The objects were on loan from the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt and this was the first time many of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb had travelled outside of Egypt.  

A black and white photo of The Queen, escorted by Lord Windlesham, Chairman of the British Museum Trustees, meeting dignitaries and shaking hands with a woman in a checkered dress.
The Queen, escorted by Lord Windlesham, Chairman of the British Museum Trustees, meeting dignitaries including the then Director Dr Robert Anderson.

Opening the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery

The Queen visited the Museum again in 1992 to open the then ‘Joseph E. Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities’ (now the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, Room 33). On a very wet night, The Queen was received at the Montague Place entrance by His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester, then Royal Trustee, and the Duchess. The Queen toured the new gallery and pulled a bow, releasing a silk banner covering an inscription. Her Majesty departed the Museum via the Main entrance, to a backdrop of giant projections of objects from the Hotung gallery onto the Museum.

A photograph of The Queen on a white stage in the Great Court, addressing a crowd of people.
Her Majesty opening the Great Court in 2000.

Opening the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

The Great Court, full name the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – with its remarkable glass roof – was opened on 6 December 2000. Dedicated to Her Majesty and designed by Sir Norman (now Lord) Foster, the Great Court was constructed in the space around the 1857 Round Reading Room at the heart of the Museum, now vacated by the British Library, to mark the new millennium and a new era for the Museum.

Guests were met on arrival by 17th-century brass music. As The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in the Weston Great Hall the British Museum and British Library Choir assembled on the stairs to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s motet God is our Refuge, composed for the Museum after his visit in July 1765. The Queen formally declared the Great Court open and there followed a music and light show accompanied by the second section of Haydn’s Creation

The Queen’s tour of the Great Court ended in the refurbished Reading Room viewing area where books written by a vast array of notable Readers were displayed, from Matthew Arnold and Charles Dickens, to Karl Marx and WB Yeats.

Want to explore the Great Court right now? Go on a virtual tour of the space on Google Street View!

The Queen with Sir Joseph Hotung, who is pointing at an object in a glass cabinet.
The Queen with Sir Joseph Hotung, © Benedict Johnson.

And most recently…

In 2017, Her Majesty returned to open the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia. The Queen was greeted by Director Hartwig Fischer and Chair of the Trustees Sir Richard Lambert, before enjoying a tour of the gallery with its curators and Sir Joseph. The stunning new gallery displays objects from China and South Asia spanning from prehistory to the present – you can tour the gallery with our curators in this video.

Celebrate the Jubilee with all the family

If you’re feeling suitably jubilant, join us on Saturday 11 June for The Platinum Jubilee Party to celebrate The Queen’s 70-year reign. With music on the front lawn, craft workshops and the chance to appear on a giant Jubilee card that we will send to Her Majesty, the party will be one to remember. It is free and there is no need to book, unless you’d like to visit the galleries or an exhibition while you’re here. Find out more on the event page.

You can also drop-in to our free display about the woman who made the iconic profile of The Queen that went on coins and postage stamps in The Asahi Shimbun Displays Mary Gillick: modelling The Queen’s portrait, in Room 3. Running from 2 June to 31 July, this intriguing display reveals the artist and the process behind the portrait.

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