Sir Hans Sloane

Sir_Hans_Sloane,_an_engraving_from_a_portrait_by_T._Murray

Sir Hans Sloane, an engraving from a portrait by T. Murray.

The origin of the British Museum lies with the collection and will of Irish physician and collector, Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was a longtime member of the Royal Society who served as its president for thirteen years between 1727 and 1741. Although Hans Sloane was an accomplished physician and the founder of London’s Foundling Hospital, he was also an avid collector of curious objects. His main collection consisted of objects from the earth’s natural history, but he also possessed an extensive library, among other collections. It is estimated that his entire collection was comprised of over 71,000 objects. At his death in 1753, Sloane bequeathed his entire collection to the nation, with the only condition being that the government pay his executors £20,000, a sum far smaller than the actual value of the collection.

Foundation of the British Museum

Shortly after Sloane’s “donation” to the nation, King George II formally accepted the collection. On 7 June 1753 he gave his assent and Parliament established the British Museum, adding to its collection two other libraries. One of those libraries was the Royal Library, which George II donated in 1757. The Royal Library came with the right to a copy of every book published in the nation, so the not yet existent museum was already guaranteed an indefinitely expanding library. The British Museum was the first of its kind, unique in the fact that it did not belong to a church or a king. It belonged to the nation, as the condition in Sloane’s will required. Thus, the Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum required it to be freely open to the public.

Montagu House

Montagu_House,_drawing_by_Sutton_Nichols_(published_1754)

A drawing of Montagu House by Sutton Nichols, published in 1754.

In order for a museum to be open to the public, however, it had to be housed and displayed somewhere. Parliament initially considered using Buckingham House to house the museum’s collection. That house stood on the grounds where Buckingham Palace stands today. Parliament rejected that idea and instead chose Montagu House, a converted 17th century mansion, as the museum’s home. After several years during which the Montagu House was prepared and the collection displays  built, the British Museum opened to the public on 15 January 1759.

Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke's west wing under construction (July 1828)

Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke’s west wing under construction (July 1828).

Expansion and Recognition

Over the years since it was first opened, the British Museum has steadily expanded its collections. Notable additions to the museum’s holdings include the Rosetta Stone (1802), and the Parthenon sculptures (1816). With expanding collections came the need to expand the museum’s space. In 1822 the donation of the King’s Library necessitated a building campaign. 1823 saw Montagu House demolished and the beginning of construction on Sir Robert Smirke’s neoclassical design for a new museum. In the 1880’s the natural history collections were removed from the British Museum and taken to what would become the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

British_museum_entrance

The entrance to the British Museum today.

With the exception of two world wars during which the priceless museum artifacts were housed in basements and bunkers, the British Museum has remained open and continued to expand ever since 1759. Today the museum boasts of over 6 million visitors per year. Its ever expanding collection now consists of over 2,000,000 individual objects, not including the natural history objects that were removed to the Natural History Museum. The floor space which is covered by the museum’s collections has expanded to over 92,000 m2 (990,000 sq. ft). Truly the British Museum is one of the foremost institutions in the world today and it all began with the donation of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection which was opened to the public on 15 January 1759.