The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, on the site of the current museum building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1887. Until 1997, when the current British Library building opened to the public, replacing the old British Museum Reading Room, the British Museum was unique in that it housed both a national museum of antiquities and a national library in the same building.
The British Museum is a target for criticism as it is a point of controversy whether museums should be allowed to possess artefacts belonging to other countries, and The Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes and Rosetta Stone are among the most disputed objects in the collections, and organisations have been formed demanding the return of these artefacts to their native countries (Greece, Nigeria and Egypt).
The British Museum has refused to return them, stating that the "restitutionist premise, that whatever was made in a country must return to an original geographical site, would empty both the British Museum and the other great museums of the world". The Museum has also argued that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection once it has entered it. Nevertheless, it has returned items such as the Tasmanian Ashes after a 20 year long battle with Australia.
The British Museum continues to assert that it is an appropriate custodian and has an inalienable right to its disputed artefacts under British law.
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