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

Geographical, July 2003 | Go to article overview

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. …

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