Collection history - the twentieth century

At the beginning of the twentieth century the millionaire philanthropist J. Pierpoint Morgan bought the collection formed by Canon W. Greenwell, mainly of ancient bronzes, and gave it to the British Museum in 1909. Prehistoric material from the island of Crete was also acquired in the early part of the century, from various sources including Sir Arthur Evans, excavator of Knossos. The Cretan material included quantities of fragmentary pottery, and the acquisition of large bodies of such archaeological material became increasingly characteristic as the age of excavation progressed.

In 1904-5 British Museum excavations at Ephesus were directed by D. G. Hogarth, and some finds came back to London with the consent of the Turkish Government. An earlier example had been material from the excavations of Sir William Flinders Petrie and E. A. Gardner at Naukratis in the Nile delta, which had arrived in the 1880s but was still being accessioned and processed in 1924.

Finds from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta were given by the British School at Athens in 1923, with the permission of the Hellenic Government, while a share of the material from Sir Leonard Woolley's excavations at Al Mina in Syria arrived in 1955. Such large groups of mainly fragmentary material included some objects suitable for exhibition, but their real value lay in augmenting the collection as a research tool.

The two World Wars saw disruption in the Museum, as measures were taken to safeguard the collections, either on or off the site. These were successful, and the building itself was unscathed in World War I, though World War II brought extensive bomb damage which affected the areas occupied by the Greek and Roman Department. Subsequent rebuilding and reorganisation brought the galleries essentially to the state in which they remain today.

This process included the installation in 1962 of the sculptures of the Parthenon in the gallery provided by Sir Joseph (later Lord) Duveen. The gallery had actually been completed in 1938, and the sculpture partly installed, but it could not be opened because of the interruption of the war, and the gallery itself was damaged in the Blitz.

After World War II the rate of additions made to the Greek and Roman Department's collections slowed considerably. Their growth over some two hundred years had depended on many chance factors, including the passions of individual excavators, collectors and curators, and had resulted in a collection of world renown, used and enjoyed by an international audience of scholars and visitors.

The pattern established by the end of the century, and continuing today, is of acquisition of material that fills gaps in the collections, enhancing their completeness and increasing their usefulness. Strict criteria are applied to purchases and gifts: the origins and histories of objects are scrutinised to check whether they can properly be acquired. Current acquisitions frequently come from old collections. They range from sherds of pottery to individual objects of great importance: the Braganza Brooch and the Jenning's Dog are two recent examples.

With the financial help of individuals, including the group of supporters known as Caryatids, and of agencies such as the National Art Collections Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the department is able purchase such objects for the national collection, and to preserve them for an international public.