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The History of The British Museum

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Not wishing to see his collection of some 71,000 objects, a library and herbarium, dispersed on his death, Sloane bequeathed it to King George II for the nation in return for the payment of ?20,000 to his heirs. Should the bequest be refused the collection was to be offered to learned academies overseas. A large and influential group of Trustees was charged with overseeing the disposition of his estate. The King had little interest but Parliament, led by the Speaker, Arthur Onslow, was persuaded to accept the gift and an Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum received the royal assent on 7 June 1753. This directed that a public lottery should be held to raise funds for the purchase and the acquisition of a repository. The Cotton collection of manuscripts, given to the nation in 1700, was attached to the new museum and ?10,000 was expended on the purchase of the Harleian collection of manuscripts. A new Board of Trustees was established.

The foundation collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural history with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnography. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt. The Museum was first housed in a 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. On 15 January 1759 the British Museum opened to the public. With the exception of two World Wars, when parts of the collection were evacuated, it has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of perhaps 5,000 a year to today's 5 million.

From its beginnings the British Museum was a new type of institution. Governed by a body of Trustees responsible to Parliament, its collections belonged to the nation, and admission was free and open to all. Entry was directed to be given to 'all studious and curious Persons' and thus throughout the Museum's history public enjoyment has been linked with scholarship and education. From the first a Reading Room was provided in which scholars could consult the library and learned staff were engaged to curate and catalogue the collections. The first students' room, that of Prints & Drawings, opened in 1808.

The first antiquities of note, Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases and other classical objects, were purchased in 1772. These were followed by such notable acquisitions as the Rosetta Stone and other antiquities from Egypt (1802), the Townley collection of classical sculpture (1805), the sculptures of the Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles (1816). With the additional expansion of the natural history collections and the library, Montagu House was rapidly outgrown. In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) provided the catalyst for the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). The first phase was largely completed in 1852, to be followed by the round Reading Room, designed by Robert's brother Sydney (1798-1877) erected in the central courtyard in 1854-7.

The 19th century was a time of popular expansion. Earlier restrictions on access were swept away and, particularly on public holidays, the Museum attracted great crowds of all ages and social classes. While the scholarly work continued with the publication of the Museum's great series of learned catalogues, many curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures and improved display. The first popular Synopsis (or guide) to the collections was published in 1808 and ran to over sixty editions before splitting into more detailed illustrated guide books by the end of the century. The Museum was much involved in excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the decipherment of cuneiform just as the Rosetta Stone, made available to earlier scholars, had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script. The appointment in 1851 of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97) led to a vast expansion into such fields as British and European prehistory and other material, ethnography, oriental art and archaeology.

In the 1880s the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington, later to become the Natural History Museum. This departure and the construction of the White Wing (fronting Montague Street) for some time absorbed the increasing collections. King Edward VII's Galleries, formally opened in 1914, the Duveen Gallery (1939/62) and the New Wing (1978) provided additional public facilities, offices, display areas and library storage. This, however, did not solve the Museum's lack of space and proposals continued to be made for a further transfer of collections.

The Department of Ethnography moved out temporarily to Burlington Gardens (now closed) in 1970. In 1973 the library departments became part of a new organisation, the British Library, leaving Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras in 1998.

The 20th century, particularly the second half, saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide was published in 1903 and a sales counter was introduced in 1912. The first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911. There was something of a hiatus because of two wars and under-funding but a full time exhibition designer was appointed in 1964 followed by an active programme of gallery refurbishment. An education service was set up in 1970 and a publishing company in 1973.

This public expansion is reflected in the opening in 2000 of The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which was created in part of the space vacated by the Library. At the centre is the restored Reading Room, now open to the general public, which houses the Paul Hamlyn Library and COMPASS, a multi-media database of the collections. Beneath are the Clore Education Centre and the Sainsbury African galleries.

The Museum celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2003.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane

Sloane was born in Killyleagh, Ireland in relatively modest circumstances. Inspired by a childhood interest in natural history, he studied medicine in London and France. It was said of him by William Stukeley, the antiquary, that he was "an instance of the great power of industry which can advance a man to a considerable height in the world's esteem with moderate parts & learning..."

His career as a collector really began when in 1687, as personal physician, he accompanied the new Governor, the Duke of Albermarle, to Jamaica, having concluded that study of exotic flora and fauna would be of use in his career. Sloane's expectations were fulfilled and he collected some 800 species of plants and other live specimens to bring back to London. An account of his travels was published in 1707 and 1725.

On his return to London in 1689 Sloane set up a successful medical practice at his home in No. 3 Bloomsbury Place - coincidentally just along the street from the present Museum building. He had a good bedside manner, accumulated wealthy and aristocratic patients among them Queen Anne and Kings George I and II, but also participated in charitable work. Although not in the first rank intellectually, he was something of an innovator. He promoted inoculation against smallpox, the use of quinine and the health-giving properties of drinking chocolate mixed with milk. He became President of the College of Physicians in 1719 and in 1727 succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society.

In 1695 he married Elizabeth Langley, widow of Fulk Rose of Jamaica. Sloane and his wife had two surviving daughters, Sarah who married George Stanley of Paultons, Hampshire and Elizabeth who became Lady Cadogan. He was created a Baronet in 1716.

He absorbed complete collections made by others, among them William Charlton (Courten) (1642-1702) and James Petiver (d.1718) and also received objects from friends and patients. One wit called him "the foremost toyman of his time". His collection thus outgrew the house at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place and Sloane was obliged to purchase No. 4. In 1742 he moved with his collections to a manor house he had bought at Chelsea. His time there is still commemorated by such place names as 'Sloane Square' and 'Hans Crescent'.

Sloane died at the age of 93 in 1753 and was buried at Chelsea Old Church. His collection then amounted to some 71,000 objects. In addition to a preponderance of natural history specimens, the collection included 1,125 "things relating to the customs of ancient times or antiquities" and 23,000 coins and medals. There were also 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts, together with a herbarium.

A group of Trustees was appointed under the terms of his will to oversee the distribution of the collection which was left in the first instance to King George II for the nation. Following the intervention of Parliament, Sloane's collection was acquired on payment of £20,000 to his two daughters and became the nucleus of the British Museum.

The Building

In 1754/ 5 the British Museum acquired Montagu House in Bloomsbury, and remains on this site today. The first Montagu House, architect Robert Hooke (1635-1703), was built c.1676 for Ralph, Duke of Montagu on land purchased from Rachel, heiress of the Earl of Southampton, who married William Russell, later Duke of Bedford. Damaged by fire in 1686, Montagu House was restored by a French architect, 'Puget', in the French style. In its time it was considered to be one of the finest buildings in London.

By the turn of the century Montagu House was no longer capable of coping with the Museum's vastly increased collections. The Trustees set up a Buildings Committee in 1802 to plan for expansion. The first extension, the Townley Gallery, was constructed 1804-8 to provide space for the classical sculpture collection of Charles Townley and for Egyptian antiquities. The architect was George Saunders (c.1762-1839). Built in Palladian style, it was located in the space currently occupied by the southern section of the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery. It was demolished in 1842-6 to make way for the Smirke building.

The core of today's building, including the great south front, was designed in 1823 by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) in Greek Revival style, but not completed until 1852. The catalyst for its construction was the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) for which Parliament voted funds for a repository. Smirke's basic concept was of a quadrangle, initially built in the garden to the north of Montagu House, the southern wing eventually replacing the old building. Additional galleries for classical sculpture and Assyrian antiquities were added to the west wing and there were projecting residences for staff. The finest room is the east wing, the King's Library, begun in 1823 and completed in 1827. Robert Smirke withdrew from the work in 1845, handing over completion of the project to his younger brother Sydney who was responsible for the Front Hall, the completion of the main (central) section of the south front and colonnade, the forecourt and railings.

In 1852 the proposal was put forward that Robert Smirke's empty quadrangle be occupied by a desperately needed new building for the library. The initial concept came from Sir Antonio Panizzi, then Keeper of Printed Books, later Principal Librarian. Sydney Smirke (1798-1877) was the architect. Work on the construction of the Reading Room, a circular domed reading area surrounded by rectangular bookstacks, took place 1854-7.

The White Wing, facing Montague Street, was constructed 1882-5, architect Sir John Taylor (1833-1912). The Museum had again been looking to expand and fortuitously a bequest made by William White (d.1823) became available after the death of his widow who had a life interest.

King Edward VII's Galleries, fronting Montague Place, were intended as the first phase of an expansion of the Museum which would replace all the surrounding properties, the freeholds of which had been purchased from the Bedford Estates in 1894-5. The architect was Sir John Burnet (1859-1939), working in Beaux Arts style. The foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1907 and the building was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914. Protection orders on surrounding buildings mean that Burnet's scheme can now never be completed.

An agreement to fund the construction of a gallery for the Parthenon Sculptures ('Elgin Marbles') was concluded with Sir Joseph (later Lord) Duveen in 1931. The architect was the American, John Russell Pope (1874-1937) architect of the National Gallery in Washington. The Duveen Gallery was completed in 1939 but, because of war damage, it was not opened until 1962.

The New Wing, was constructed 1975-78 with a formal opening in 1980. The intention was to provide public facilities (exhibition gallery, restaurant, etc) and offices but, because of cuts in government spending, only half the scheme was completed. The architect is Sir Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library at St Pancras.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, architect Lord Foster of Thames Bank, was opened by The Queen on 6 December 2000. Following the departure to St Pancras of the Museum's library departments, now part of the British Library, in 1998 the bookstacks surrounding Sydney Smirke's round Reading Room were dismantled and a new floor constructed across the courtyard. This was then roofed over to provide the largest covered square in Europe. The Reading Room was restored to its 1857 decorative scheme and new facilities (Clore Education Centre, Sainsbury African Galleries, Ford Young Visitors Centre, BP and Stevenson Lecture Theatres) constructed below.