History of the British Museum

Hans Sloane

Dubbed the first national public museum in the world, the British Museum didn’t start off as a grand, Greek-style building full of Egyptian mummies, Roman statues and Aztec turquoise. The museum has changed quite a bit in its almost 300-year history, but began with the donation of Hans Sloane (above), a high-society Irish physician – who also invented hot chocolate. What claims to fame!

Upon his death in 1753, Sloane bequeathed his collection of fantastic antiquities, books, and natural specimens to the nation. King George II and Parliament wanted Sloane’s collection to be seen by the people, not sit in a basement somewhere collecting dust. So later that year, Parliament passed the The British Museum Act, which formally established the British Museum at Montagu House – which stood on the spot of the current British Museum. To add some variety to Sloane’s science-heavy collection, Parliament included the Cottonian Library and Harleian manuscripts in the new museum for a taste of literature and art.  

FUN FACT: The board of trustees almost bought a place called Buckingham House, which some of you might know better as its current incarnation – Buckingham Palace.

As the collection grew, so did the museum. In the 1880s, the natural history collection had grown enough to become a museum in its own right. The collection moved to a building in South Kensington, in what we know now as the Natural History Museum.   

FUN FACT: Entry to the Natural History Museum is free. It has a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons too, including a famous 26-meter-long diplodocus. Check it out – and when you’re done, maybe go on a THATMuse treasure hunt at the V&A next door!

One of the most prominent additions to the British Museum was the introduction of the Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon, brought to the museum in 1812 by Lord Elgin. In 1931 funds were given by the controversial Sir Joseph Duveen to construct a new gallery for the Elgin Marbles. However, WWII got in the way and the gallery wasn’t opened until 1962. It was American architect, John Russell Pope, who designed the new gallery that you can now see today. Pope also designed the National Gallery in DC!

On the note of design, Robert Smirke is the man responsible for most of the recognizable parts of the British Museum you see today. The Quadrangle, the main section of the British Museum, was completed in 1852. You can still see it in the basic structure of the museum today, with wings in the north, south, east, and west. The first room to be competed was the Kings Library, finished in 1827. The library was one of main reasons the new building was built in the first place. King George the IV donated books belonging to his father, King George III, and the British Museum just didn’t have room for all of them! You can still see the restored Kings Library, though it is now called “The Enlightenment Room.”  

FUN FACT: The original design for the British Museum included dorms for museum staff, as the museum workers lived on site– which was common practice in those days!

Great Court in the British Museum

While the majority of the current British Museum was designed by Robert Smirke, one of the British Museum’s most distinctive features, the central court and dramatic glass ceiling (above), was designed by Norman Foster’s company (who also designed the famous Millenium – AKA “Wobbly” – Bridge!) The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. The Great Court was a massive undertaking and was completed in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. This beautiful and impressive space greets visitors as they first enter the museum – and what a vast number of visitors that is! For the past eight years, the British Museum has remained the U. K’s no.1 visitor attraction. Last year over 6.6 million people visited the British Museum to see the amazing history that it contains.

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