History of the British Museum
The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the beginning it granted free admission to all 'studious and curious persons'. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5,000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today.
The eighteenth century: origins of the British MuseumThe origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).
Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.
The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.
The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.
The British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759 . It was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’.
With the exception of two World Wars, the Museum has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of 5,000 per year to today's 6 million.
The nineteenth century: expansion and discoveryIn the early part of the nineteenth century there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), theTownley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816).
In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) prompted the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867).
By 1857, both the quadrangular building and the round Reading Roomhad been constructed.
To make more room for the increasing collections held by the Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the Natural History Museum.
The Museum was involved in much excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script). In the same way the Rosetta Stone had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script (a symbol-based script).
A key figure during this period was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826–97). Appointed to the Museum in 1851, he was the first person to be responsible for British and medieval material.
Franks expanded the collection in new directions, collecting not only British and medieval antiquities but also prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and objects.
Visitor numbers increased greatly during the nineteenth century. The Museum attracted crowds of all ages and social classes, particularly on public holidays.
Alongside their academic work, curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures, improving the displays and writing popular guides to the collections.
The twentieth century: providing a public serviceThe twentieth century saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide to the Museum was published in 1903 and the first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911.
By the 1970s, there was an active programme of gallery refurbishments and an education service and publishing company had been established. Additional public facilities were provided in a series of building works. These included the Duveen Gallery, built to house the Parthenon Sculptures (1939/62).
In 1973 the library became part of a new organisation, the British Library. This organisation remained at the Museum until 1997, when the books left Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras.
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, built in the space vacated by the library, reflects the most recent public expansion at the Museum. At two acres, it is the largest covered public space in Europe. In the centre is the restored Reading Room, while around and beneath it new galleries and an education centre were built.
The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the restoration of the King's Library, the Museum's oldest room and the launch of a new permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.
The twenty-first century: the Museum's recent historyDuring the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Museum has continued to expand its public facilities with the opening of four new permanent galleries in 2008/9:
In 2009, the Museum was awarded the Carbon Trust Standard for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
History of the collection
The original collection of the British Museum included antiquities, coins and medals, natural history specimens and a large library collection. It now comprises over 8 million objects spanning the history of the world's cultures: from the stone tools of early man to twentieth century prints.
Founding collectionThe British Museum's founding collection was the 71,000 books, antiquities and natural specimens bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753.
Two other collections were also brought under the care of the early Museum:
In 1772, the first major collection of classical antiquities was added to the Museum when the Greek vase collection belonging to Sir William Hamilton was acquired.
Other notable objects acquired included the first ancient Egyptian mummy bequeathed to the Museum in 1756 as well as a number of ethnographic artefacts given to the Museum following Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages (1767–1770). This included a Tahitian mourner’s dress.
A number of more eccentric donations were also given to the Museum: the trunk of a tree gnawed by a beaver (1760), a stone resembling a petrified loaf (1760) and a live tortoise from North America (1765).
Early to mid nineteenth century: classical antiquitiesInterest in the classical antiquities determined how the collection developed during the beginning of the nineteenth century.
A number of high profile classical antiquity acquisitions were made such as the Rosetta Stone (1802) and the Townley collection of classical sculpture, including the ‘Discobolos’ statue and the bust of a young woman ‘Clytie’ (1805).
The importance of antiquities was recognised when the Department of Antiquities was founded in 1807.
Throughout the century, more classical antiquities became part of the collection including sculptures from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae(1815), the Parthenon sculptures (1816), the Nereid monument(1842) and the remains of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (1856–7).
During the mid-nineteenth century interest grew in the Middle East. In 1825 the Western Asiatic collection was begun, consisting of a collection of manuscripts, medals and antiquities ‘illustrative of countries situated on the Euphrates and Tigris’.
In the 1850s, the first stone sculptures arrived at the Museum from excavations carried out at the Nimrud site in the Middle East.
One of the first arrivals was the Great winged bull, although it nearly did not make to Bloomsbury. The party bringing the sculpture back was ambushed en route by a band of robbers. A mark from a musket ball fired during the skirmish is still visible on the statue.
In 1860, the Department of Antiquities was divided into three new departments which reflected the new priorities of the collection: Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals, Oriental Antiquities.
Late nineteenth century: British and medieval antiquitiesDuring the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift in the focus of acquisitions.
After growing pressure from archaeological groups wanting more respect to be given to national antiquities, the Museum established a position of responsibility for British and Medieval material.
The first person appointed was the 25-year-old Augustus Wollaston Franks (later Sir), who laid the foundations for the Museum’s current departments.
Not only did Franks increase the British and Medieval antiquities held by the Museum, but he also added prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and artefacts.
Objects Franks was responsible for acquiring included a uniquewhalebone casket from Northumbria (1867), the Royal Gold Cup(1892) and 10,000 items from the Christy collection of prehistory and ethnography, including a collection of Mexican turquoise masks.
On his death in 1897, Franks bequeathed his own personal collection to the Museum. It included the magnificent Oxus Treasure.
The 1880s saw the first major break up of the collection, when the natural history material was moved to a separate building in South Kensington. This was to become the Natural History Museum.
Twentieth century: developing today's collectionThe twentieth century saw the reorganisation of the Museum’s collection and the opening of a number of new galleries in which to display the collection to visitors.
A key development following the end of the First World War, was the creation of the research laboratory in 1920.
Its remit was to report on the condition of objects and to assist in their restoration and preservation. This department was created after many of the items in the collection were found to have deteriorated during their wartime storage.
A number of key archaeological finds were discovered during the twentieth century. Abroad, a series of graves known as The Royal Cemetery, were discovered on an expedition to Ur.
Meanwhile in Britain the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo was discovered (1938). The finds were presented to the Museum in 1939.
In 1997, the collection was again divided with the library departments leaving the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
Collecting for the futureThe Museum is committed to sustaining and improving the breadth of its collection for the benefit of people today and in the future. Aided by gifts and funding from public bodies and private individuals the Museum is able to continue to build its collection.
Alongside antiquities, it is crucial for the Museum to collect contemporary objects. Building upon the broad range of material in the Museum’s historical collections, these modern works derive from all parts of the world and document social, political, spiritual, economic, artistic and technological change.
Creating links between the present and the past, contemporary objects allow the Museum to continue to tell the story of world cultures for future generations.