Posted by: Prospector PJ8 JAN 2009
On 15 January 2009, the British Museum celebrates the 250th anniversary of its public opening. Set up by Parliament in 1753 it was the world’s first national museum, open free of charge to all “studious and curious persons”. Last year (2008) it attracted six million visitors.
The British Museum was established with a collection of 71,000 objects bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane. They included natural history specimens, coins, medals, books, prints and manuscripts.
Sloane was an innovative doctor who promoted inoculation against smallpox, the use of quinine to treat malaria, and the health-giving properties of drinking chocolate mixed with milk. His collection took off in 1687 when he collected some 800 species of plant and other live specimens while acting as personal physician to the Governor of Jamaica.
He later absorbed complete collections made by others and received objects from friends and patients, so that he had to move to a larger house in Chelsea. His residence there is commemorated by place names such as Sloane Square and Hans Crescent.
Sir Hans was president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719 and 1727, and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society. His patients included Queen Anne and Kings George I and II.
The British Museum was first housed in a 17th century mansion in Bloomsbury on the site of today’s building. Sloane’s collection was augmented by the Cotton and Harleian collections of manuscripts.
As the collection expanded further the mansion house was replaced with the current rectangular building with a round Reading Room containing the British Library in its central courtyard. Famous recipients of readers’ tickets for the library include Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 2000, when the British Library relocated to a new two-acre site in St Pancras, the museum’s inner courtyard, with the Reading Room still at its centre, was given a glass roof, transforming it into the biggest covered public square in Europe.
Today’s British Museum is one of the largest in the world, with a collection of more than seven million objects that illustrate and document the history of human culture. Items of disputed ownership include the Elgin Marbles from Greece, the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria and Egypt’s Rosetta Stone.
The museum argues that the British Museum Act of 1963 legally prevents any object from leaving its collection.