The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The History The British Museum

The British Museum; the entrance facade as built. Engraving Wellcome V0013532

The British Museum was established in 1753, when the trustees purchased a 17th-century mansion called Montagu House, in Bloomsbury as a location for the museum.. The genesis of the institution was the government’s acceptance of responsibility for three private collections bequeathed to the nation.The initial collections were made by Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Robert Cotton, and Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753),  a physician and naturalist, is considered the founder of the British Museum collection, because not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II for the nation.

During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered a significant collection of 71,000 objects which included: 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, prints, drawings, antiquities from Europe, Africa, Americas, the Ancient Near and Far East and an extensive collection of natural history specimens.

Public access to the British Museum was free of charge from the outset although in the early period there were only a limited number of tickets issued daily to manage crowding. Below is an entrance ticket to the British Museum, dated March 3, 1790. This photo of the ticket (©Trustees of the British Museum) is on display, in a case at the British Museum, London.

Entrance ticket to the British Museum, London March 3, 1790

The old Montagu House eventually became too small as the collections of the museum increased. Thus Montagu House gave way in 1824 to the beginning of a series of successive building projects that continued to increase the floor space of the museum right up to modern times.

To cater for the continued growth of visitors and collections, in 1998, the British Library was split from the British Museum to a new location and an independent museum at St Pancras. This move saw the transformation of the famous “Round Reading Room”, which opened in 1857 and had served for 150 years many famous literary figures and researchers who came to consult the Museum’s vast library. What we see today of the “Round Reading Room” is the “Great Court” which enclosed what was a vast exposed space into an integral part of the enclosed museum. Shown below is The “Great Court” of the British Museum, with the new tessellated roof surrounding the “Round Reading Room”.

British Museum Great Court roof

Today the British Museum collection consists over 8 million objects. Only 80,000 objects are on public display at any one time. This is 1% of the total collection.

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“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” H.G. Wells

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Photo Credit: 1) See page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3)By Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons