|British Museum : History |
Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum
Though principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities today, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and whilst not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for the princely sum of £20,000.
At that time, Sloane's collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas
The foundation (1753)
On 7 June 1753 King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum. The Foundation Act, added two other libraries to the Sloane collection. The Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to Elizabethan times and the Harleian library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the Royal Library assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving copy of Beowulf.
The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum - national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, whilst including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests. The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both national museum and national library.
Cabinet of curiosities (1753-1778)
The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The Trustees rejected Buckingham House, on a site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.
With the acquisition of Montagu House the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759. In 1757 King George II gave the Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the Museum's library would expand indefinitely. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note; Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays, but yet contained few ancient relics recognisable to visitors of the modern museum.
Indolence and energy (1778-1800)
From 1778 a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books, engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the Museum's reputation however Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.
The Museum's first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artifacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the Museum, dated 31 January 1784, refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the Royal Society in London.
Growth and change (1800-1825)
In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid, Greece, Rome and Egypt dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile, in 1801, the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculpture and in 1802 King George III presented the Rosetta Stone - key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British Consul General in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture. Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman Sculpture, in 1805. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to Britain. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the Museum thereafter. The collections were supplemented by the Bassae frieze from Phigaleia, Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities from the widow of Claudius James Rich.
In 1802 a Buildings Committee was set up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the King's Library, personal library of King George III's, comprising 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawing. The neoclassical architect, Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the Museum "... for the reception of the Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..." and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished and work on the King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the National Gallery, London in 1824, the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural History collections.
The largest building site in Europe (1825-1850)
Left to Right: Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke's west wing under construction (July 1828)
The Museum became a construction site as Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose. The King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, however, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.
In 1840 the Museum became involved in its first overseas excavations, Charles Fellows's expedition to Xanthos, in Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lykia, among them the Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857 Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the Museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard and others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiform tablets, which helped to make the Museum a focus for Assyrian studies.
Sir Thomas Grenville (1755-1846) was a Trustee of The British Museum from 1830 assembled a fine library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the Museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.
Collecting from the wider world (1850-1875)
The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for Assyrian sculptures and Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in South Kensington, which would later become the British Museum (Natural History).
Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library. The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.
Until the mid-19th century the Museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the Museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, branching out into the Orient and diversifying its holdings of ethnography. Overseas excavations continued and John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th-century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, another Wonder of the Ancient World.
Scholarship and legacies (1875-1900)
The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, in 1887. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.
In 1882 the Museum was involved in the establishment of the independent Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator, A.W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, over 30,000 bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the Oxus Treasure.
In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the glittering contents, from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of objets d'art et de vertu which included equisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica, in the tradition of a schatzkammer or treasure houses such as those formed by the Renaissance princes of Europe. Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be,
- "placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it".
New century, new building (1900-1925)
By the last years of the nineteenth century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the Museum building was no longer big enough for them. In 1895 the Trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the Museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the West, North and East sides of the Museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.
All the while, the collections kept growing, Emily Torday collected in Central Africa, Aurel Stein in Central Asia, D.G. Hogarth, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence excavated at Carchemish. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated to a Postal Tube Railway at Holborn, the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919, some objects were found to have deteriorated. A temporary conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence. In 1923, the British Museum, welcomed over one million visitors.
Disruption and reconstruction (1925-1950)
New mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In August 1939, after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the most valuable and portable objects were evacuated. The Museum was damaged by incendiary bombs in May 1941. The immediate post-war years were taken up with rebuilding and return of the collections from secret storage.
In 1931 the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades. However, due to the imminence of war and the likelihood of air-raids the Parthenon Sculptures along with Museum's collection were dispersed to secure basements, country houses, Aldwych tube station, the National Library of Wales and a quarry. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing. The Museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2,600 BC Mesopotamian treasure from Ur, discovered during Leonard Woolley's 1922-34 excavations. Gold, silver and garnet grave goods from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946).
A new public face (1950-1975)
In 1953 the Museum celebrated its bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full time in house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, A Friends organisation was set up in 1968, an Education Service established in 1970 and publishing house in 1973. In 1963 a new Act of Parliament introduced administrative reforms. It became easier to lend objects, the constitution of the Board of Trustees changed and the Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries. In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.
By the 1970s the Museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the Museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints & drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 1 1/4 miles of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.
The Great Court emerges (1975-2000)
The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court - the largest covered square in Europe - which opened in 2000.
The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind at 6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries.
The Museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The Museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.
The Museum today
The Museum was founded 250 years ago as an encyclopedia of nature and of art. Today it no longer houses collections of natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The Museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.
The Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the Museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre. This contains the Paul Hamlyn Library of books about the Museum's collections, which is open to all visitors.
With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum now empty, the process of demolition for Lord Foster's glass-roofed Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African and Oceanic collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family.
In technical terms, the British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the Director. The British Museum was run from its inception by a 'Principal Librarian' (when the book collections were still part of the Museum), a role that was renamed 'Director and Principal Librarian' in 1898, and 'Director' in 1973 (on the separation of the British Library).
A board of 25 trustees (with the Director as their accounting officer for the purposes of reporting to Government) is responsible for the general management and control of the Museum, in accordance with the British Museum Act of 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992. Prior to the 1963 Act, it was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The board was formed on the Museum's inception to hold its collections in trust for the nation without actually owning them themselves, and now fulfil a mainly advisory role. Trustee appointments are governed by the regulatory framework set out in the code of practice on public appointments issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. For a list of current trustees, see here.
The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 13.7 metres (45 ft) high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance is decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, installed in 1852.
The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823-28, followed by the North Wing in 1833-38, which originally housed among other galleries a reading room, now the Wellcome Gallery. Work was also progressing on the northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826-31, with Montagu House demolished in 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing with its great colonnade, initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847, when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public. The Museum is faced with Portland stone, but the perimeter walls and other parts of the building were built using Haytor granite from Dartmoor in South Devon, transported via the unique Haytor Granite Tramway.
In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the Museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854-57; at 42.6 metres (140 ft) in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.
The next major addition was the White Wing 1882-84 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.
In 1895, Parliament gave the Museum Trustees a loan of £200,000 to purchase from the Duke of Bedford all 69 houses which backed onto the Museum building in the five surrounding streets - Great Russell Street, Montague Street, Montague Place, Bedford Square and Bloomsbury Street. The Trustees planned to demolish these houses and to build around the West, North and East sides of the Museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the Museum stands. The architect Sir John James Burnet was petitioned to put forward ambitious long-term plans to extend the building on all three sides. Most of the houses in Montague Place were knocked down a few years after the sale. Of this grand plan only the Edward VII galleries in the centre of the North Front were ever constructed, these were built 1906-14 to the design by J.J. Burnet, and opened by George V and Queen Mary in 1914. They now house the Museum's collections of Prints and Drawings and Oriental Antiquities. There was not enough money to put up more new buildings, and so the houses in the other streets are nearly all still standing.
The Duveen Gallery, sited to the west of the Egyptian, Greek & Assyrian sculpture galleries, was designed to house the Elgin Marbles by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938, it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict for 22 years, before reopening in 1962. Other areas damaged during World War II bombing included: in September 1940 two unexploded bombs hit the Edward VII galleries, the King's Library received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, incendiaries fell on the dome of the Round Reading Room but did little damage; on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941 several incendiaries fell on the south west corner of the Museum, destroying the book stack and 150,000 books in the courtyard and the galleries around the top of the Great Staircase - this damage was not fully repaired until the early 1960s.
The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is a covered square at the centre of the British Museum designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners. The Great Court opened in December 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe. The roof is a glass and steel construction with 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library, its functions now moved to St Pancras. The Reading Room is open to any member of the public who wishes to read there.
Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest Museums in the world, covering an area of over 13.5 acres or 75,000 m² of exhibition space, showcasing apporximately 50,000 items from its collection. There are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, representing two miles of exhibition space, although the less popular ones have restricted opening times. However, the lack of a large temporary exhibition space has led to the £100 million North West Development Project to provide one and to concentrate all the Museum's conservation facilities into one Conservation Centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and is expected for completion by 2011.
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