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Interesting History of the British Museum That You Should Know

Leena Palande May 4, 2019
The world famous British Museum contains about 8 million objects, which demonstrate the fascinating culture and history of the world. This post presents a brief history of the British Museum. Read on to know some interesting facts about this famous museum.
The well-known physician, Sir Hans Sloane (1660 - 1753), born in Killyleagh, Ireland, had collected more than 71,000 objects from all over the world. Although he was a physician, he was fond of collecting natural historical artifacts. He was a successful doctor, and Queen Anne and Kings George I and II were amongst his affluent patients.
He had to accompany his patients all over the world. He used to get precious gifts from his patients, and he himself used to buy exclusive items while traveling to various places. According to his will, his heirs received £20,000 against his collection.
The collection was handed over to King George II for the nation. British parliament accepted the valuable gifts on 7 June, 1753, and passed the act for establishing the British Museum. 'The British Museum' is the first national public museum in the world.

Brief History of the British Museum

Like the famous museums in Paris, the British Museum is also known for its exclusive collections. Sir Hans Sloane had collected thousands of books, coins, medals, prints, drawings, manuscripts, etc.
The natural specimens and other ethnographic material collected by Sir Hans Sloane is preserved well in the museum with the help of modern techniques. King George II gifted the 'Old Royal Library' in 1757. The British Museum was opened for the public on 15 January, 1759. From the very first day, the entry into the museum has been free to all.
The whole collection was first displayed in an ancient seventeenth-century mansion, 'Montagu House', in Bloomsbury, on the site of the present building. Take a look at the following time-line, which provides information on how the classical collection of the museum developed.
  • 1756: The museum received the first ancient Egyptian mummy.
  • 1760: The trunk of a tree that was being gnawed by a beaver, and also a stone resembling a petrified loaf were received.
  • 1765: A live tortoise from North America was handed over to the museum.
  • 1767 - 1770: Various other precious objects like the Tahitian mourner's dress were acquired by the museum after Captain Cook's three Pacific voyages.
  • 1772: The Greek vase collection that belonged to Sir William Hamilton was acquired.
  • 1802: The Rosetta stone from Egypt belonging to the Ptolemaic period (196 BC) was acquired by the museum.
  • 1805: Excellent sculptures like bronze statue of 'Discobolos' (a man throwing a dish) belonging to the period 5th century BC and marble bust of 'Clytie' belonging to the Roman era (about AD 40 - 50) were acquired from Italy. Well-known British collector Charles Townley handed over these sculptures.
  • 1807: Department of Antiquities was founded.
  • 1815: A sculpture (marble block from 420 - 400 BC) from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios (Apollo the Helper) built on Mount Kotylion at Bassae, in south-west Arcadia (Greece) was received.
  • 1816: Marble sculptures from The Parthenon, a temple of the Goddess Athena (Athens, 447 - 432 BC) were received.
  • 1842: The Nereid Monument depicting Greek and Lycian style was obtained from south west Turkey. Nereids stands for sea nymphs.
  • 1856 - 57: The remains of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (350 BC) from south west Turkey were received.
  • 1850s: The first stone sculptures like the 'Great Winged Bull' were added to the collection of the museum. The sculptures were found at the excavation site at Nimrud, Iraq.
  • 1860: The Department of Antiquities was divided into three new departments: Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals, Oriental Antiquities, as per need.
  • 1898: 300 pieces of exclusive jewelry, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica (Italian tin-glazed pottery), the Holy Thorn Reliquary, were received as part of The Waddesdon Bequest.
In the late nineteenth century, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks was appointed to acquire precious antiquities for the museum. He did his job very well. The 'whalebone casket' is named after him, and is referred to as 'The Franks Casket'.
He collected more than 10,000 classical antiquities, which include the Royal Gold Cup, and his personal collection 'Oxus Treasure', along with 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, more than 30,000 bookplates, and various other items of jewelry and plates.
In the 1880s, the natural history material was shifted to a building in South Kensington. This is now known as the Natural History Museum. In 1997, the library department was moved to the new British Library in St Pancras.
The center of the museum was renovated in 2000. Since then, it is known as the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court or just the Great Court. It covers the original Reading Room.
In the twentieth century, various new galleries were opened, and the entire collection was rearranged. In 1920, the research laboratory was set up. The historical monuments and antiquities are well maintained, and new collections are being added every year.
Old records show that during the eighteenth century, about 5,000 people (per year) used to visit the museum. These days, about 6 million people visit the museum every year! The museum has remained opened for all days, except for some days during the two world wars!
With funding from public bodies, and gifts and donations from wealthy people; the British Museum has successfully built its collection. The history of the British Museum shows how the museum is devoted to maintaining its collection. It also shows how it is committed to improving the quality and quantity of the antiquities, for the welfare of the people.