How the British Museum Became the World’s First National Public Museum | History Hit

How the British Museum Became the World’s First National Public Museum

Montague House: the first home of the British Museum.
Image Credit: Bodleian Libraries / Public Domain

The British Museum in London is one of the most famous museums in the world, with a collection of 8 million objects. More than 6 million visitors a year flock to the site in Bloomsbury to explore its varied exhibitions.

The museum opened on 15 January 1759. It was housed in a 17th century mansion called Montague House that once stood on the current site. An Act of Parliament established the museum 5 years earlier, after Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his extensive collection of more than 71,000 objects to the nation.

Sloane’s founding collection consisted largely of books and manuscripts, with some natural specimens and antiquities. The collection was expanded by explorers including James Cook, who brought back objects from their travels around the globe.

A print of Hans Sloane, whose collection is at the core of the British Museum.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Expanding the collection

Technically the museum had been founded for all, and was free to enter unlike other similar collections at the time: however, limited opening hours and a strict ticketing system meant that in effect, the museum’s collections were reserved for the well-connected elites, who had the leisure time to apply for tickets because they were not constrained by working hours. However, by the mid 19th century, regulations and opening hours were relaxed, allowing more people from all walks of life to enter.

During the early 19th century, the museum’s collection of antiquities really began to expand. After their defeat of Napoleon’s forces in Egypt, the British acquired a range of Egyptian sculptures. These included the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II (incorrectly believed first by Napoleon and then by the British to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great) and the Rosetta Stone.

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From 1818 Henry Salt, the British consul general in Egypt, provided the museum with a collection of Egyptian monumental sculpture. Later, in 1816, the museum purchased the marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.

In the 1840s, the museum also became actively involved in excavations abroad. Its support for work in Assyria, at sites such as Nineveh and Nimrud, made it a centre for the study of this area.

By 1857, prompted by the rapid expansion of it collections, the museum had been transformed by the construction of the quadrangular building we see today.

Relocation, relocation

Yet the museum continued to struggle for space. As a result, the museum’s large natural history collection was moved to a new location in South Kensington, which would become the Natural History Museum.

The museum’s collections and visitor numbers continued to increase in the 20th century, with the production of the first popular guides to the exhibitions helping more people to understand their significance. The British Museum also became a tool of empire: people back home in Britain could explore, understand and celebrate the expansion of the British Empire and see the multicultural nature of the people now ruled over.

The Trustees of the British Museum, as well as the painter (right, sitting), are depicted pondering the artistic and humanistic value of the Parthenon sculptures (1819), on display in “The Temporary Elgin Room” of the museum as of 1817.

The museum remained open for the first year of the First World War, hosting a series of lectures in November 1914 in aid of Belgian refugees. But in March 1916 the museum was closed. Many priceless exhibits were moved to deep tunnels beneath London for safety and several government departments moved in to the museum to make use of the space.

The museum closed again in 1939 with the outbreak of World War Two. The collections were moved to safer locations. The Elgin Marbles were among the objects housed in a disused tunnel of the Aldwych tube station. A fortunate decision as on 18 September 1940 the museum was damaged during a bombing raid.

Post-war and controversy

Post-war, the museum’s expansion continued apace; bomb damage was repaired and other galleries remodelled. The museum’s popular appeal also continued to grow. In 1972 the exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun” received 1,694,117 visitors.

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In 1972 an Act of Parliament established the British Library, splitting the museum’s vast library of books and manuscripts from the rest of the collection. In 1997 the British Library was moved to a new building in St Pancras.

This move left the British Museum with an opportunity for redevelopment of the space left vacant by the library. This resulted in the creation of the Great Court in the 19th century quadrangle, which was covered by a monumental glass roof. The Great Court, opened in 2000, is the largest covered square in Europe.

The museum has been the subject of controversy for its acquisition of priceless artefacts from foreign countries. The most high-profile of the disputed items are the Elgin Marbles. Greece, backed by UNESCO, has called for the return of the marbles. The museum’s collection of Benin Bronzes have also been called into question in recent years.

Sarah Roller