History of the British Museum

The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the beginning it granted free admission to all 'studious and curious persons'. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5,000 a year in the eighteenth century to nearly 6 million today.


The eighteenth century: origins of the British Museum

The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753).

Over his lifetime, Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.

The founding collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural specimens with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic material. In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.

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.

Visitors at Montagu House

The nineteenth century: expansion and discovery

In the early part of the nineteenth century there were a number of high profile acquisitions. These included the Rosetta Stone (1802), the Townley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816).

In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) prompted the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (17801867).

By 1857, both the quadrangular building and the round Reading Room had been constructed.

To make more room for the increasing collections held by the Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the Natural History Museum.

The Museum was involved in much excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script). In the same way the Rosetta Stone had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script (a symbol-based script).

A key figure during this period was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826–97). Appointed to the Museum in 1851, he was the first person to be responsible for British and medieval material.

Franks expanded the collection in new directions, collecting not only British and medieval antiquities but also prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological material from Europe and beyond as well as oriental art and objects.

Visitor numbers increased greatly during the nineteenth century. The Museum attracted crowds of all ages and social classes, particularly on public holidays.

Alongside their academic work, curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures, improving the displays and writing popular guides to the collections.

Sir Robert Smirke

The twentieth century: providing a public service

The twentieth century saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide to the Museum was published in 1903 and the first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911.

By the 1970s, there was an active programme of gallery refurbishments and an education service and publishing company had been established. Additional public facilities were provided in a series of building works. These included the Duveen Gallery, built to house the Parthenon Sculptures (1939/62).

In 1973 the library became part of a new organisation, the British Library. This organisation remained at the Museum until 1997, when the books left Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, built in the space vacated by the library, reflects the most recent public expansion at the Museum. At two acres, it is the largest covered public space in Europe. In the centre is the restored Reading Room, while around and beneath it new galleries and an education centre were built.

The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the restoration of the King's Library, the Museum's oldest room and the launch of a new permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.

Great Court

The twenty-first century: the Museum's recent history

During the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Museum has continued to expand its public facilities with the opening of four new permanent galleries in 2008/9:

The Museum is now looking forward to its next major building project, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, which will include a new temporary exhibition space. 

In 2009, the Museum was awarded the Carbon Trust Standard for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

 
Wall-painting from Nebmaun's tomb-chapel

Images from top:

  • Staircase of the old British Museum in Montagu House with three stuffed giraffes and a rhinoceros.
    George Scharf I, 1845, watercolour
  • Bust of Sir Robert Smirke
  • Queen Elizabeth II Great Court
  • Nebamun hunting in the marshes, a wall-painting from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, c1350 BC