The British Museum: 250 Years on. (Frontline)

By Wilson, David M. | History Today, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The British Museum: 250 Years on. (Frontline)


Wilson, David M., History Today


IN 2003 THE BRITISH MUSEUM celebrates its 250th anniversary. To coincide with this occasion a former Director, David Wilson, has written a major new history of the Museum.

The death of Sir Hans Sloane, at the age of ninety-two, on January 11th, 1753, triggered the foundation of one of the great intellectual institutions of the world--the British Museum. Sloane's will, constructed with tortuous political savvy, provided trustees of power and experience whose duty it was to save his large collection for the nation. The collection befitted Sloane's position as a leading figure of the European Enlightenment; although based in natural history, it had been considerably leavened over his lifetime by the careful--if almost wholesale--acquisition of antiquities, manuscripts, printed books, coins, medals, drawings and prints.

The trustees of his will set to work with energy and expedition. The king, consulted almost immediately, `doubted whether there was money sufficient in the exchequer' to support Sloane's ideas, so the trustees turned to Parliament which considered the matter in two debates in March. The Speaker--Arthur Onslow--unusually quit the chair to take part in the debate. His intervention was crucial in reaching the required objective, but many MPs had their own agenda, so that, by the time the British Museum Act received Royal Assent on June 7th, 1753, a newly constituted board of trustees was also saddled with the care of three major libraries--that of Sir Robert Cotton, left to the nation in 1700, the Harleian Library, comprising the manuscript collections of the Earls of Oxford, and the Old Royal Library. Sloane's museum had thus become embedded in a major library, the running of which was to dominate the Museum for many years. The Museum was funded by a special lottery, which, after various deductions and the purchase of a house on the site of the present Museum, left a miserable 30,000 [pounds sterling] for the ongoing running of the institution.

No such public museum existed at that time so the Trustees had to start from first principles. Although they appointed a staff of some academic stature--mostly with a continental medical training--the Trustees in effect ran the Museum and took all the decisions, however minor. Soon one man, Sir Joseph Banks, a Trustee ex officio as President of the Royal Society from 1778, dominated the board. A major natural scientist, he treated the Museum as a private fiefdom, attracting to it particularly natural history and ethnographic collections (particularly from Captain Cook's expeditions). It was not until the appointment of the Swiss philologist Joseph Planta, as Principal Librarian in 1799, that the staff began to have more say in the running of the institution and the library became less dominant. During Planta's reign the Museum acquired its first great collections of antiquities, including the Townley collection of classical sculpture and the Elgin Marbles, and made its first forays into disciplines which would become its great specialities, Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities. These collections--which encompassed much sculpture--demanded more space and in 1814 Sir Robert Smirke was first employed as architect by the Museum: over the next thirty years he designed and supervised the building of the Museum in the form we know it today.

The library departments dominated the Museum, as they would for much of the nineteenth century, as successive Principal Librarians struggled for space and for properly policed copyright laws.

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