Museum History

The story of the British Museum.

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Monday 7th November 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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Hans Sloane Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

In the beginning

The British Museum was founded on 7th June 1753 when The British Museum Act received the Royal Assent. This act provided for a public lottery to be held to raise funds for the acquisition of the Sir Hans Sloane collection of natural history items, books, manuscripts and antiquities as well as a repository to house them. Also included in this arrangement was the purchase of the Harley Collection of manuscripts and the housing of the Cottonian collection of books, manuscripts etc, which had been bequeathed to the nation in 1700.

In 1754 the Trustees purchased Montagu House, a 17th century mansion in Bloomsbury, to house the collections and in 1756 appointed the Museum's first staff under a Principal Librarian, Gowin Knight. The Museum opened to the public on 15th January 1759.

Acquisitions for the Museum continued to grow and in 1757, King George II donated the Royal Library and with it the privilege of copyright deposit. The increasing importance of the expanding antiquities collections was recognised in 1807 by the establishment of a separate Antiquities Department and in 1808 by the opening of the Townley Gallery to house Classical and Egyptian material. The Department of Prints and Drawings was created in 1836.

Faced with ever expanding collections and the growing disrepair of Montagu House, the Trustees decided to build a completely new Museum. This operation, largely directed by the architect Robert Smirke, took 30 years and cost £800,000. The first part of the new building was the King's Library, completed in 1827. Montagu House was demolished in 1852. The round Reading Room, not part of the original plan, was completed by Robert Smirke's brother, Sydney, in 1857.

In 1860, the Department of Antiquities split in to three; Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals and Oriental Antiquities, which curiously included British and Medieval European material. The continuing growth of the collections again called for drastic action and, in the 1880s, the Natural History collections were moved to South Kensington. The White Wing was built in 1884 and the King Edward VII galleries opened in 1914.

 
Great Court Copyrighted image Copyright: British Museum

Recent History

In 1963 The British Museum (Natural History) was recognised as a completely separate institution and in 1973 the departments of Printed Books, Manuscripts and Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts were separated from The British Museum to form part of the new British Library although at first physically staying under the same roof.

The Museum's constant need to find more space led to a number of developments during the 1970s; the Ethnographical collections were moved to the Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly and two new stores were opened, one at Orsman Road in Hackney (Franks House) and one at the old National Savings Bank building at Blythe Road in Hammersmith, the latter being shared with the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert. Also during the 1970s, the New Wing was built to house mainly offices, but also included new restaurants, meeting rooms and an exhibition gallery.

With the final departure of the British Library departments to their new building in St Pancras in 1998, the way became clear to convert all the vacated space to Museum use and the Great Court scheme was begun. Opened in December 2000 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, this provided a new education centre as well as new galleries, shops and restaurants, while the Reading Room itself was restored and converted into an Information Centre. For the first time in the Museum's history visitors are now able to walk across the Museum at ground floor level.

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