Building the collection
The British Museum’s original collection, based on that of Sir Hans Sloane, was encyclopaedic in range. The Act of Parliament that brought about the founding of the Museum in 1753 described it as including “books, drawings, manuscripts, prints, medals, and coins, ancient and modern antiquities, seals, cameos and intaglios, precious stones, agates, jaspers, vessels of agate and jasper, crystals, mathematical instruments, drawings and pictures”.
With that starting point the Museum grew and grew through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Objects from around the world were added to the collection by inquisitive collectors, antiquaries, archaeologists and ethnographers. The result today is a collection of more than seven million artefacts that represent an incredibly wide range of cultures from around the world.
However, staff at the Museum continue to make sure the collection remains, in the words of the Act, ‘modern’, and alive, by building on it and adding to it.
In aiming to tell the story of the world’s cultures, the Museum has a responsibility to future generations to keep on collecting so that the story can be told comprehensively and with authority. So, acquisitions are made to tell a new story about the past or present, or to fill a gap in an existing collection.
For example, over the past 25 years the Museum has been building what is now the best collection of contemporary art from the Middle East in any western museum. Adding these works is a natural step to building on the Museum’s existing collection of antiquities and Islamic art from the region.
Cultural laws mean new material acquired by the Museum is mostly contemporary or comes from Britain. But occasionally, perhaps once or twice every ten years, the opportunity will come along to acquire a major ancient object from a culture outside this country.
The Museum’s resources are never sufficient enough for it to be able to make these important acquisitions on its own. But it is generously helped by gifts and funding from public bodies and private individuals.
In recent years the Museum has been able to acquire some hugely significant artefacts in this way. These have included the extraordinary ‘Queen of the Night’, an Old Babylonian clay plaque from around 1800 BC and a unique Anglo-Saxon gold ‘mancus’, a coin from the late eighth or early ninth century AD struck for Coenwulf, King of Mercia.