British Museum Opens
When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753 he bequeathed the nation his “cabinet of curiosities” - more than 70,000 objects including his extensive library of some 40,000 books, on condition the not inconsiderable sum of £20,000 be paid to the executors of his estate.
It was a bargain at the price, culturally and financially. The Irish-born physician – and incidentally, the inventor of milk chocolate – had been an avid collector, and more than that he had been a collector of collections. The government agreed readily.
Sloane died on January 11 1753, aged 92, and by June 7 of that year King George II was giving the royal assent to the Act of Parliament that in essence created the British Museum, a rare piece of swift action by politicians. To the Sloane collection were added two major libraries: the Harleian and the Cottonian, comprising volumes collected by, respectively, the Earls of Oxford and the Elizabethan politician and antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton.
Montagu House in Bloomsbury was purchased in 1754 to house the combined collections, but it was to be another five years before the general public were able to enter the hallowed halls for the first time, the great day being January 15 1759. Before this a further collection of books and manuscripts, the Royal Library, was added in 1757.
The institution was intended originally to be a universal museum, much in the spirit of curiosity and eclecticism shown by Sloane when he amassed his collection, though he did have a bias towards the scientific: books of dried insects valued as much as ancient Egyptian objects; Aztec treasures to be enjoyed near to prints by renaissance artists.
As Britain expanded her empire through the 18th and 19th centuries the British Museum was the natural repository for treasures ‘gathered’ by adventurers and soldiers across the globe. This greed for objects of significance is not of course without critics, and controversy still rages about such items as the Elgin Marbles housed there. Even within Britain there is debate about objects taken to the capital to the detriment of the regions whence they came.
Today there are more than 13 million objects housed in the museum, though it has been refined into a more cultural and artistic centre than it was originally, the Natural History Museum an offshoot that took with it a huge number of exhibits, and in 1997 the British Library was given its own building.
The Museum has expanded physically over the centuries, the site with 94 galleries now covering 5.5 hectares. Every year millions visit the site, from parties of reluctant schoolchildren to scholars of world renown, who themselves perhaps were once forced to go there, but when confronted by the magnificent collections had their imaginations fired for life.
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