Three cats on a bench outside the British Museum

14 of my favourite items from the British Museum Archive

By Francesca Hillier, Museum Archivist

Publication date: 7 June 2021

The British Museum Archive is a unique record of the Museum's activities since it was founded in 1753. Here, archivist Francesca Hillier reveals her 14 favourite items and the incredible stories they tell about the Museum, the history of the collection, and the people who worked here.

1. Foundation deed

This document is the deed which legally passed Hans Sloane's collection to the Trustees of the British Museum after his death. It's dated 20 December 1753 and signed by Sloane's executors, including James Empson, who then came to work at the Museum to help curate the Sloane material. It's my favourite item in the Archive because it’s where it all started!

Large official deed title document with four red wax seals at the bottom
The British Museum’s foundation deed, dated 20th December 1753.

2. Montagu House garden plan

The Museum's first home was in Montagu House. This is the garden plan for the house from 1725 when the building was being remodelled. It's from a bound volume of plans for the house drawn up by Henry Flitcroft which was presented to the Museum Trustees when the property was purchased.

Large plan of the gardens surrounding Montagu House, showing lawns, trees and paths
Drawing of the Montagu House garden plan.

The gardens were the first part of the Museum estate to be publicly accessible, opening to the public in 1756, with the new Museum building following in 1759. The gatehouse for the building, at the far left of this drawing, sits on what is now Great Russell Street, and the present Museum building sits within this garden space.

3. 19th-century photos of natural history objects

A giraffe on display in the British Museum with other mammals which are in cases behind
A giraffe in the Central Saloon (now Rooms 38–39), with various other mammals in the cases behind. Photo by Frederick York, 1875.
An attendant sits next to a shark on display in the British Museum, with cases full of other animals behind
A shark and attendant. Photo by Frederick York, 1875.

Natural history objects were part of the Museum’s collection from the start and were moved to the new British Museum of Natural History (now simply the Natural History Museum) in the 1880s. These photographs were taken in 1875, while the collection was still at Bloomsbury, and are part of a photographic survey of the Museum which was taken in 1875 by photographer Frederick York. This collection is one of my favourites because it’s a snapshot in time, showing most of the Museum as it was towards the end of the 19th century.

4. Spectacles

Old fashioned spectacles with a label attached recording that they were discovered inside a sarcophagus in 1988
Photo of the spectacles found in 1988 in the stone sarcophagus.

The Archive contains the odd item which may not be considered strictly archival. These spectacles were found in 1988 inside a lidded Romano-British stone sarcophagus, which had been found in London in the 1850s. One of the lenses is still intact, though cracked, and the spectacles have been dated to the turn of the 19th–20th century.

My theory is that a curator was inspecting the sarcophagus in the early 1900s when he leaned over and his spectacles fell in. Unable to retrieve them, the lid was replaced, and they weren’t seen again until it was removed in 1988!

This is the sarcophagus they were found in.

Stone sarcophagus decorated with carvings including a draped portrait in profile, leaves, palmettes and baskets of fruit
Decorated stone sarcophagus, Britain, 4th century AD.

5. Photo of the Museum preparing for World War I

The British Museum's Egyptian gallery during the First World War, piled high with sandbags protecting objects
Photo of the British Museum’s Egyptian gallery, filled with sandbags to protect objects from possible aerial attacks during World War I.

The Museum’s Trustees were concerned about the threat of an aerial attack during the First World War. As part of their planning for the protection of the Museum’s collections at Bloomsbury, many of the most precious objects were taken off-site and placed in more secure locations across the country, including the newly built Post Office Railway tunnel.

For objects that were too large to be removed, discussions about how to protect objects in-situ included the option of filling galleries from floor to ceiling with sand. Realising that the floor-loading would be a problem, even for the ground floor galleries, it was decided that less weighty sand bagging could be used instead. This photograph shows sandbagging in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery and is from an album of World War I images showing the preparations for war.

6. Photo of the Museum during World War II

Bomb damage to the British Museum's Central Saloon. Walls have been damaged by fire and display cases destroyed.
Photo of the Central Saloon, badly damaged after a bomb strike in 1941.

The Museum was badly damaged by bombs in World War II. This photograph shows the Central Saloon, the open area now at the top of the main stairs, after a bomb strike in 1941. I particularly like this photo, despite the destruction it shows, because of the surviving statue at the end of the room.

7. Photo of drying books in Room 33

Open books standing on the floor and on top of display cases in one of the British Museum's galleries
Photo of books drying after water used to put out a Blitz-related fire caused water damage.

After the Blitz in 1941, there was considerable water damage to the Museum’s library collection. The library had taken a direct hit and the fire that followed meant that many books were damaged by the water used to put it out. These books were spread out in Room 33 (now The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery) to dry and every available bit of space was used.

8. Stereoscopic images by Roger Fenton

Two identical versions of the same image, side by side, showing a view of the Greco Roman gallery in the British Museum
A stereoscopic image of the Greco-Roman Saloon on ‘Artists’ Day’. Photograph taken by Roger Fenton, 1857.

Roger Fenton was the first official Museum photographer who began working for the Museum in 1852. He was a photography pioneer who was later involved in the foundation of the Photographic Society and had been employed initially to photograph cuneiform tablets so that the images could be sent to specialists in other countries for decipherment. However, he soon began photographing other objects and Museum spaces. This photograph, taken of the Greco-Roman Saloon in 1857 was part of a series of stereoscopic images which were made to be seen through a stereoscopic viewer, giving an almost 3D appearance – as seen below.

Greek and Roman arefacts including vases and statues on display in the British Museum
The Greco-Roman Saloon, British Museum, 1857.

9. Photos from the Sutton Hoo dig

Decorative gold buckle, gold purse and other gold and garnet items uncovered during the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo
Photo of a gold buckle, gold purse and other gold and garnet finds, discovered at Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxon ship burial found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939 unearthed treasures like nothing before found in England. The excavations were documented and photographed, with the archive finding its home at the British Museum alongside the objects, bequeathed to the nation by Mrs Edith Pretty. The photo above shows the famous gold buckle and the gold purse, with other gold and garnet finds, in the ground as they were discovered.

This photo below shows the imprint of the ship and the archaeologists at work in 1939.

Archaeologists examine the imprint of an Anglo Saxon ship at the Sutton Hoo dig
Photo of the imprint of the ship and the Sutton Hoo archaeologists in 1939.

10. Lawrence of Arabia’s drawings

Between 1911 and 1914, TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, worked on the British Museum’s excavations at Carchemish (Jerablus), with the support of the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Dr DG Hogarth and later, Reginald Campbell-Thompson and Leonard Woolley. We have extensive archives from this excavation, including Lawrence’s own fieldwork notes, drawings – and even his hotel bills!

These two drawings are part of this archive – one is of two lions either side of a pedestal, about two feet tall, and found on what was described as the Great Mound. The other is of a winged lion (relief in basalt) with a god’s head on top of the lion’s.

Two lions standing either side of a pedestal
Sketch by TE Lawrence of two lions either side of a pedestal.
A lion with wings and the head of a God. The God wears a conical hat.
Sketch by TE Lawrence of a winged lion with a god’s head on top of the lion’s.

11. Photo of the Museum’s cats

Three cats on a bench outside the British Museum
Photo of Maisie, Pippin and Poppet from the 1980s, three of many cats that lived on the Museum's grounds.

I love cats and the Museum was once home to many of them! It’s thought they had a presence on the site since the Museum opened, and their numbers reached as many as a hundred at their peak.

It’s known that former staff members who lived in the staff residences on site kept cats and there was a famous cat called Mike who, when he died in 1929, had his obituary printed in Time Magazine.

The archive of the Cat’s Welfare Society (British Museum), which was set up in 1977 by members of staff, show the widespread concern for the wellbeing of the animals still living on Museum premises. Their numbers had become unmanageable and the health of the cat population was now a major concern – some were quite feral, and they were getting into storerooms and causing damage. This is a photo of Maisie, Pippin and Poppet from the 1980s, keeping guard!

12. Photo showing the building of the Round Reading Room

The metal framework during the construction of the dome of the Round Reading Room. Workers working nearby.
Photo showing the building of the dome of the Round Reading Room, taken in 1855 by William Lake Price.

I particularly like this image from the Archive because it’s one of the oldest photographs we have, taken in 1855 by William Lake Price, and shows the complexities of building works in the middle of the 19th century. It shows the building of the dome of the Round Reading Room, which was constructed in the middle of the inner courtyard and provided much needed storage for thousands of books, as well as space for more than 300 readers.

13. Drawing of the Mold Gold Cape

Drawing of the mold gold cap showing the patterns on different parts of the cape
Drawing of the famous Mold Gold Cape from the 1830s.

This drawing is from the 1830s and describes how and where the Mold Gold Cape from the Museum’s collection was found – in a Welsh field named Bryn yr Ellyllon (the Fairies' or Goblins' Hill).

I especially like this for the description of who might have worn it: ‘he must have been a famous chief, 400 loads of stone having been thrown into his cairn as a tribute to his memory’ – and for the sketched copy of the gold pieces as they had been found.

You can see the actual cape pieced together here.

A gold cape designed to fit over the shoulders embellished with decoration to mimic strings of beads amid folds of cloth
The Mold Gold Cape, found in Wales, about 1900–1600 BC.

14. Fire plaque

A white plaque showing a hand in another hand, with a crown above
The Hand in Hand Insurance Company fire plaque, formerly fixed to the wall at the British Museum.

The Museum's Trustees were understandably concerned about the risk of fire from the start and in 1755 the decision was taken to purchase two fire engines. These were hand-drawn carts with reservoirs to hold water and the New River Company was asked to lay two fire-cocks (a connection point through which firefighters can tap into a water supply) to improve access to water in 1756.

The need for insurance to cover the fire risk was also discussed. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, with so many businesses being destroyed by fire, the Fire Office Insurance Company was formed in 1667. Other insurance companies followed, and by 1769 the Hand in Hand Insurance Co. (founded in 1696) was providing insurance cover to the Museum at a premium of £2, along with a deposit of £10. 

With this insurance came the company fire plaque – fixed to the wall in a prominent place so that the relevant company would know whether to help put a fire out. If you didn’t have the right plaque, you didn’t get the help! This plaque sits in the Archive alongside the original fire insurance document from 1769.

Want to hear more from Francesca? Find out what her role as an archivist involves and discover more fascinating stories from the British Museum Archive.