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Research project

Re-examining the history of the British Museum collection

Key project information


March 2020 – September 2022

Contact details


Supported by

Townley Group of the British Museum Friends

What can an examination of the British Museum collection from 1753 to the present day tell us about challenges and change in documenting its history?

This project, Counting when, where and how? Re-examining the history of the British Museum collection, is part of the Museum’s ongoing research into the history of the collection. Using the Collection online object database as a research tool, it will analyse the Museum's collecting history from its foundation in 1753 right up to 2019.

This research moves away from traditional histories of collections that tend to concentrate on individual collections or collectors. Instead, it will undertake the first holistic analysis of the global British Museum collection by looking across time, place, material and departments. 

This pilot project uses a pioneering quantitative approach to using Collection online data by asking how, when, from whom and from where the global collections entered the Museum.

About the project

The British Museum Collection online is a vast untapped resource with millions of object records, including detailed histories of their acquisition and display. This project will examine that data to critically reframe the Museum’s collecting history and explore how the collection has grown over the past two and a half centuries. 

Previous research on the British Museum collection has focused on single areas of the collection or on individual collectors. However, due to the breadth of objects acquired by the Museum, these studies only tell a partial story of how the collection has been shaped since its foundation and new research in the field of history of collecting suggests that such approaches are limited. 

Instead, this project will undertake a quantitative analysis of the whole Museum collection, not just looking at particular individuals, collections or subject areas. It will consider:

  • What does this quantitative analysis reveal?
  • Does it lead to a clearer understanding of the history of the collection as a whole?
  • What are the limitations of such an approach? 
  • What is the value of using the Collection online database as a research tool?

Collection online is a working resource and, as a live dataset, information is added and updated constantly. Understanding and communicating the limitations of collection databases is a key component of this project.


This project aims to: 

  • Provide quantitative information about the growth of the British Museum collection for the first time.
  • Understand the broader shape of the collection and contextualise individual holdings or areas within the Museum.
  • Develop methods and theories that can be applied to the collections of other institutions and to the wider history of collecting field.

The project will engage a range of expert and non-expert audiences that are interested in the history of the Museum collection and digital approaches to collection histories. The findings of this research will be published in journal articles and related publications and shared through external talks and seminars. It will also be the basis for applications for further funding to develop and build on the outcomes of this project in the future.

Meet the team

J D Hill.

JD Hill

Principal Investigator 
British Museum

Isobel MacDonald.

Isobel MacDonald

Project Curator

British Museum



Counting when, who and how


Isobel MacDonald

Journal of the History of Collections

Published in 2022