The British Museum
255th anniversary of public opening

On 15 January 1759, the first visitors were allowed in to view the collection of the British Museum. 255 years on we are celebrating the most successful year yet, with over 6.5 million visitors in 2013.

Hoa Hakananai'a

Hoa Hakananai'a, from Orongo, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Polynesia, around AD 1000. On display in Room 24

The collection

Today the Museum’s collection of over eight million objects is seen worldwide by over 100 million people a year. The Museum is a centre of excellence for education, research and discovery worldwide.

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The Great Court

The Museum today

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About the building: Great Court

Montagu House

The Museum 255 years ago

When the Museum opened in 1759, it was housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montague House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building. Entry was free and given to 'all studious and curious persons'.

The British Museum’s 255th anniversary: from the archives

The Museum 255 years ago

On this day 255 years ago (15 January 1759), the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time in Montague House, a seventeenth-century mansion on the site of the current Museum.

British Museum from Great Russell Street

The gateway to Montague House, the old British Museum. The view is looking east along Great Russell Street. A coach is coming along the road, a sedan chair is on the pavement and children visit a fruit stand against the wall.

Museum Postcard

View of Montague House from Great Russell Street, with pedestrians and two horse drawn carriages present.

Following the foundation of the Museum by Act of Parliament in 1753 the Trustees spent their time finding and renovating this home for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection, as well as a collection of manuscripts that had been established as a public collection by Parliament in 1700. This was the Cottonian Library, assembled by the family of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, that included the Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript of Beowulf and two copies of Magna Carta, which are now in the British Library, which moved to its new home in St Pancras in 1997.

The Trustees considered alternative premises before finalising on Montague House; the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham House (which became Buckingham Palace on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837) were both rejected as too expensive. Instead, Montague House, with seven and a half acres of ground was bought for £10,000.

Museum Street

Two views of the different sides of the British Museum, in Montague house. Above: A carriage is outside the wall surrounding the gardens. Below: A view of the British Museum from the gardens.

When the Museum first opened, public access was limited, with a complicated system of invitations. Would-be visitors had to apply for a ticket from the hall porter, and even then they were admitted only with the approval of the Principal Librarian. Visitors weren’t allowed to roam freely – groups of 15 were rushed around by a member of staff. 'We had no time allowed to examine any thing', complained one visitor. But by the 1830s, the Museum’s trust of the public had improved and was operating an open admissions policy. The Museum has remained free to everyone since then.

The Museum has grown exponentially since 1759, from 80,000 objects in Sloane’s original bequest to around eight million today, covering all countries of the world throughout time. The collection continues to grow to reflect our contemporary world. It remains a collection available to a global citizenship, and they do use it – from 5,000 visitors in 1759, to over six and a half million walking through the doors in 2013, and around 30 million online visits to the Museum’s websites.

Ticket to gain entry to the British Museum

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collection, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

Section from Statutes and rules: to be observed in the management and use of the British Museum, by order of the Trustees (1757)

Page 4 from the 1757 British Museum statutes and rules book

The times when the Museum is to be kept open.

1. That the Museum be kept open at the hours mentioned below, every day throughout the year, except Saturday and Sunday in each week; and likewise except Christmas day and one week after, one week after Easter day and Whitsunday respectively, Good Friday, and all days, which shall hereafter be specially appointed for Thanksgivings and Fasts by Royal authority.

2. That at all other times the Museum be let open in the manner following: That is to say, from nine a clock in the morning till three in the afternoon, from Monday to Friday, between the months of September and April inclusive; and likewise at the same hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, in May, June, July, and August; but on Monday and Friday, only from four a clock to eight in the afternoon, during those four months.

That such studious and curious persons, who are desirous to see the Museum, be admitted by printed Tickets
Page 5 from the 1757 British Museum statutes and rules book

The manner of admission to view the Museum.

1. That such studious and curious persons, who are desirous to see the Museum, be admitted by printed Tickets, to be delivered by the Porter upon their application in writing; which application shall contain their names, condition, and places of abode; as also the day and hour, at which they desire to be admitted: and that the said names be inserted in the Tickets, and, together with the respective additions, entered in a Register to be kept by the Porter.

2. That no more than ten Tickets be delivered out for each hour of admittance, which Tickets, when brought by the respective persons therein named, are to be shewn to the Porter; who is thereupon to conduct them to a proper room appointed for their reception, till their hour of seeing the Museum be come, at which time they are to deliver their Tickets to the proper Officer of the first department: and that five of the persons...

Page 6 from the 1757 British Museum statutes and rules book

...persons producing such Tickets be attended by the Under Librarian, and the other five by the Assistant, in each department.

3. That the said number of Tickets be delivered for the hours of nine, ten, eleven, and twelve respectively, in the morning; and for the hours of four and five, in the afternoon of those days, in which the Museum is to be open at that time: and that if application be made for a greater number of Tickets, the persons last applying be desired to name some other day and hour, which will be most convenient for them.

4. That if the number of persons producing Tickets for any particular hour does not exceed five, they be desired to join in one company; which may be attended, either by the Under Librarian, or Assistant, as shall be agreed between them.

5. That the spectators may view the whole Museum in a regular order, they are first to be conducted through the Sloanian Collection; then the Sloanian Library; and afterwards the two Libraries of Manuscripts, with the Library of Major Edwards; by the particular Officers assigned to each department.

That one hour only be allowed to several companies, for gratifying their curiosity in viewing each apartment
Page 7 from the 1757 British Museum statutes and rules book

6. That one hour only be allowed to several companies, for gratifying their curiosity in viewing each apartment; and that each company keep together in that room, in which the Officer, who attends them, shall then be.

7. That in passing through the rooms, if any of the spectators desire to see any Book, or other part of the Collection, not herein after excepted, it be handed to them by the Officer, who is to restore it to its place, before they leave the room; that no more than one such Book, or other part of the Collection, be delivered at a time; and that the Officer be ready to give the company any information, they shall desire, relating to that part of the Collection under his care.

8. That upon the expiration of each hour, notice be given of it; at the time the several companies shall remove out of the apartment, in which they then are, to make room for two fresh companies.

9. That if any of the persons, who have Tickets, come after the hour marked in the said Tickets, but before the three hours allotted them are expired; they be permitted to join the company appointed for the same...

Page 8 from the 1757 British Museum statutes and rules book

Section from Statutes and rules: to be observed in the management and use of the British Museum, by order of the Trustees (1757)

...same hour, in order to see the remaining part of the Collection, if they desire it.

10. That the Museum be constantly shut up at all other times, but those above mentioned.

11. That if any persons are desirous of visiting the Museum more than once, they may apply for Tickets, in the manner above mentioned, at any other times, and as often as they please.

12. That no children be admitted into the Museum.

13. That no Officer, or Servant, take any fee or reward of any person whatsoever, for his attendance in the discharge of his duty, under the penalty of immediate dismission.

That no children be admitted into the Museum.