Holding History: The British Museum Celebrates Its 250th Birthday This Year. Former Director Sir David M Wilson Gives a Guided Tour through Its Long and Distinguished Past
the origins of the British Museum can be traced to a single man. In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane, a 92-year-old physician and the greatest collector of his time, bequeathed his accumulation of some 71,000 objects, a library and herbarium to the nation. This act of generosity led to the establishment of what is now the oldest public museum in the world.
Sloane, an Irishman of modest background, had studied in London and France, becoming friendly with many of the leading scientists of the day. Instead of settling into the life of a fashionable doctor, he initially spent some three years in Jamaica as personal physician to the governor. There he indulged his passion for scientific observation and collecting, the results of which he published in works on the natural history of the West Indies and the botany of Jamaica. On his return, he married well and became physician to the great and the good. He succeeded Newton as president of the Royal Society and became a baronet in 1716.
Like many physicians of the period, Sloane collected specimens of both natural and manufactured materials through agents as far afield as China and South America. He also acquired other people's collections, most importantly a huge body of material, chiefly antiquities, assembled by his rich friend William Courten.
In the spirit of the age, Sloane's was a universal collection that ranged from exotic plants and birds' skins to coins and medals (more than 20,000 of them), unique albums of Durer's prints and drawings, an asbestos purse given to him by Benjamin Franklin and a vast library of manuscripts and printed books.
Today's British Museum enshrines many of Sloane's ideas and intentions. Established by an Act of Parliament, the museum's governance was handed to a body of trustees--aristocrats, collectors, secretaries of state, judges and learned men--people of enormous influence, whose business it was to administer the collection, appoint staff, find a building and finance the whole on the basis of a sum raised by lottery. (Regular public funding was only rather grudgingly introduced in 1762.)
Having purchased a grand mansion, Montagu House, the trustees opened the museum to the public in January 1759 (the present building was built on the same site in the mid-19th century). The senior academics were largely trained in medicine and were strictly supervised by the trustees, who were anxious to publish catalogues of the collections. Few members of staff were allowed out to prosecute their research, but they remained in touch with the learned world, both in Britain and abroad, and were able to attract valuable and useful collections, initially mostly by donation.
The classical world
Perhaps the most important collections received in the late 18th century were those of Sir William Hamilton, the husband of Nelson's mistress. An ardent collector, he was British minister in Naples from 1764. There he became an expert on volcanoes, and in 1767 gave the museum a collection of minerals from the eruptions of Mounts Vesuvius and Etna. But it was his collection of classical antiquities--which he sold to the museum in 1772 for 8,410 [pounds sterling]--that was to change completely the balance of the museum's image.
This was the first major acquisition of material from the classical world, an important source for the museum over the next century. The Townley collection, the Elgin Marbles, the Bassae frieze, sculpture from two of the Seven Wonders of the World (the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus), and the Blacas collection of smaller antiquities are but a few of the great acquisitions made during the 1800s. Aided by transport provided by the navy, staff and agents of the museum excavated on classical sites in Turkey, Cyprus and North Africa and brought home material that added context to the earlier collections of the gentleman connoisseurs.
There had been Egyptian antiquities in the museum from its earliest days--the first mummy arrived in 1756--but the early years of the 19th century saw vast accessions of sculpture and objects. The most important was undoubtedly the Rosetta stone, taken from the French when their Egyptian campaign collapsed in 1801. This fragment of granitoid stone bears portions of a decree of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (196 BC) written in three scripts--Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic--a transcription of which, 20 years later, enabled Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher for the first time the enigmatic ancient Egyptian script.
This was to be the forerunner of the museum's vast and ever-popular Egyptian collection. But it was the great sculptures excavated from the palaces of Mesopotamia and the accompanying inscribed clay tablets that provided the public of the mid-19th century with their greatest thrills. Not only were these secular sculptures--which decorated the palaces of the Assyrian kings of the early first millennium BC--entirely strange to Western eyes, but the associated inscriptions put the Christian West in direct touch with the period recorded in the Old Testament.
The museum led the way in recording, deciphering and transcribing the cuneiform characters of the new script. A crucial find was made in 1873 by the museum's George Smith on a fragment of a tablet from the seventh century BC from Kuyunjik in Iraq, the capital of the Assyrian Empire at that time. There he found and deciphered part of the Gilgamesh epic, which reflects the biblical story of the Flood. This caused a great public stir and Smith, financed by the Daily Telegraph, went on to recover more fragments of the tablet.
While much of its focus was on exotica from foreign climes, the museum also began to acquire, without really knowing it, a considerable and important collection of antiquities from the British Isles, which was gradually put on display in odd corners of the building.
No one seemed keen to tackle this part of the collection until the 1830s, when Edward Hawkins, an energetic curator with skill and political acumen, managed to persuade the museum authorities and Parliament that the country's own history and prehistory shouldn't be neglected. The completion of the new building in the early 1840s helped the process, and the appointment in 1851 of a young, wealthy curator, Augustus Wollaston Franks, to look after the collection gave it a formal seal of approval.
A student of medieval history, Franks was the most important person in the museum's 19th century history. It was a stirring time intellectually, as the work of the geologists and Darwin rewrote the early history of man. Danish museum curators, displaying the antiquities of their own country, created a system that provided a chronological framework for prehistory by defining the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Franks, with a few friends and colleagues in England, embraced the new terminology and developed it. The presence of tools in the gravels of the Seine and Thames, backed by Darwin's ideas on evolution, enabled scholars to extend backwards the early history of man by thousands of years. The new ideas were partly developed in the museum and were used in the prehistoric displays. Franks collected comparative material on the Continent to illuminate the British collections, so that native material could be placed in its proper cultural and chronological context.
But Franks maintained the broad scope of the museum. Using his wide international friendships, he encouraged others to give or sell their collections to the museum, where necessary paying for material from his own pocket. The most influential gift was the bequest by wealthy and widely travelled businessman Henry Christy of a large, eclectic collection of prehistoric and ethnographic material from all over the world. This was to form the basis of the museum's collections of the material culture of indigenous peoples.
Franks then began to acquire material on a planned basis, sometimes with money bequeathed by Christy, but also by gift and exchange. He encouraged travellers and missionaries to collect for the museum and to record details of the societies from which the material derived. With a few like-minded friends he published a guide for collectors that indicated the type of information that would be most helpful. But his interests extended far beyond such matters. He collected and published in areas as diverse as bookplates, playing cards, Indian sculpture, scientific instruments, European porcelain, American archaeology, Anglo-Saxon coins and so on--gradually giving his own collections to the museum and encouraging his friends to do the same.
In more traditional areas, the museum acquired its incomparable collections of coins, medals, prints and drawings. Displays became more sophisticated and excavation and collecting more exacting, while the staff's scholarship became more professional and influential. Through its series of published catalogues, the museum's reputation grew.
Nevertheless, there were problems. Chronically short of space throughout the 20th century, it fought with government for buildings, but received most help from private benefactors. Likewise, it has frequently been starved of government funding. Nowadays, often supported by private money, the museum works with local curators and sociologists to collect for mutual benefit in countries from Pakistan to Cameroon and Mexico to China to provide a collection for the whole world.
The museum explores the world
Although the British Museum's interests were represented on several expeditions of geographical importance, it was often its own staff or agents who ventured into the unknown, Thus, in 1816, a Paduan named Giovanni Belzoni gained permission from the Ottoman Viceroy to move the colossal granite head of Ramses II from Thebes to London, Later, he excavated the buried temple at Abu Simbel, discovered six royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and provided the museum with many important Egyptian objects,
In 19th-century Mesopotamia soldiers and consular officials found and recorded cuneiform inscriptions, excavated palaces and collected further inscriptions impressed in clay tablets on behalf of the museum. Henry Layard, an official working in Baghdad, overcame enormous logistical difficulties to transport some of the massive Assyrian bull sculptures to London. The thousands of tablets recovered at this time and by later expeditions are still being deciphered.
The museum prides itself on its material relating to indigenous cultures, to which Emil Torday made a significant contribution in the early 20th century. Working as a merchant in the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Torday was horrified to witness the actions of the Belgian colonial powers. He subsequently resigned from his job and began to study and record the lives of the people of south-central Congo. Funded from England and advised by the museum, he sought to create an account of the peoples of the region. His work is a primary source for the history of south-central Congo and the collection in the British Museum remains fundamental to the study of its cultural development.
Geographical readers can purchase David M Wilson's book The British Museum: a History for the special price of 30 [pounds sterling] (incl. p&p; RRP 35 [pounds sterling]) by calling the British Museum Company customer services on freephone 0800 085 0864
The majority of the images that appear in this feature were drawn from The British Museum: 250 Years by Marjorie Caygill. Priced at 6 [pounds sterling], this book can also be ordered from the above freephone number
Director of the British Museum between 1977 and 1992, David Wilson is in a rather good position to bring us the history of the greatest and oldest publicly funded museum in the world. David, who studied at St John's College, Cambridge, was a professor of archaeology at University College London prior to his appointment as director, and now describes himself as "oldish, curious and enquiring". On page 26, he takes us through the history of the museum's collections, the buildings that house them, and the people who have administered and curated them since its foundation in 1753, giving us a fascinating insight into this institution of international significance.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Holding History: The British Museum Celebrates Its 250th Birthday This Year. Former Director Sir David M Wilson Gives a Guided Tour through Its Long and Distinguished Past. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: Geographical. Volume: 75. Issue: 7 Publication date: July 2003. Page number: 26+. © 2008 Circle Publishing Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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