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Anniversary of the British Museum

Today is the anniversary of the British Museum! 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.

In celebration of the Museum’s 254th year, we’ve published below an extract from the Treasures of the British Museum, by Marjorie Caygill.

The Trustees' Mace

The Trustees’ Mace, which lay on the table at Board meetings and was reputed to have been carried before the Trustees during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on their visitations to Museum departments. Made of silver hallmarked 1758/59 and inscribed ‘The Trustees of the British Museum 1759’, the year that the Museum opened to the public. L. 2.4 m. The mace rests on a copy of the Act of Parliament ‘for the purchase of the Museum or Collection or Sir Hans Sloane, and of the Harleian Collection’, 1753.

A visitor to the British Museum a few years after its foundation in 1753 would have had to negotiate a massive entrance gate on Great Russell Street. On crossing a cobbled courtyard he, or she, would have entered Montagu House, a hastily although lavishly converted mansion, built on the previous century on the edge of London. Inside, after admission tickets had been collected, a small group of about ten people would have been conducted on a guided tour, lasting about two or three hours, past natural history specimens – both attractive and disgusting, but always interesting – and a miscellaneous collection of antiquities, ethnography and what could only be termed curiosities. Before leaving, the visitor would be able to inspect the outside of the books on the library shelves and might perhaps be shown some fine paintings of flowers. There were at that time in the Museum’s collections around 88,000 books and volumes of manuscripts, 24,000 coins and medals, 43,000 natural history specimens and perhaps 5,000 antiquities and ‘modern’ curiosities. This vast collection was curated, protected against the influx of the London mob, and kept clean, by twelve staff. Today the British Museum houses 6 – 12 million objects (if sherds and other small items are counted separately), and has a staff of over 1,000. Its offshoot the Natural History Museum has 70 million specimens and the more recently separated British Library holds 150 million items.

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the eminent physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753), the greatest collector of his age, particularly noted for his assemblage of natural history specimens, who bequeathed his vast omnium gatherum to King George II for the nation in return for £20,000 for his two heirs. The king was somewhat indifferent but Parliament had the foresight to accept the offer. The British Museum Act received the royal assent on 7 June 1753. Funds to buy a repository and to run the Museum were raised by a state lottery, noticeably corrupt even for the eighteenth century. Parliament seized the opportunity to add to Sloane’s miscellany the historical and literary manuscript collections of the Cotton and Harley families. In 1757 George II donated the Old Royal Library of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright deposit. A body of powerful Trustees with perpetual succession, was appointed to govern the Museum on behalf of the nation.

The Museum and its small reading room opened to the public on 15 January 1759.

Text and image © Trustees of the British Museum

You can read more about Treasures of the British Museum by Marjorie Caygill on the British Museum shop website.

Category: History

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