Marjorie Caygill

The idea of a museum is an ancient one. In Europe it has been traced to the Greek mousier, first a shrine of the muses - the deities who 'revealed to mortals the magic of the arts and the mysteries of science' - then a repository for gifts, like the fifth century BC Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. later it became a ample of the arts and finally a 'collection of tangible memorials to mankind's creative genome'.

Throughout history rulers, realities prelates and private individuals amassed collection, largely for private enjoyment, but it was the eighteenth century which saw the origins of the modern museum and it was the British Museum in London which, at its foundations in 1753, became the first museum in the world which was public, secular and national.

The direct origins of the British Museum lie in the will of Sir Hans Solace (1660-1753). Solace, who was born in Ireland, qualified as physician in France. He was voracious collector, particularly of natural history. His collections were famed in Europe and attracted many prominent visitors. Not wishing to see them divided at his death, Solace in his will directed that they should be offered in turn to a number of possible recipients, beginning with King George II for the British nation. The King had little enthusiasm but Parliament grasped this great opportunity. An Act of Parliament received the Royal acquire a suitable repository by means of a public lottery. The Museum thus belonged not to the King but to the nation, for whom it was held in trust by a Board Trustees, who in turn were governed by the requirements of an elected Parliament (as is the case today). Parliament also took the opportunity to add to Saloon's request a superb collection, largely of European manuscripts and books, but also including coins, which had been formed by the Cotton family and given to the nation some years before, and to purchase for $10,000 the manuscript collections of the Harley family, Earls of Oxford.

The collection which 1755 moved into its first home, Montage House on the site of the present Museum, was heavily biased towards natural shivery, books and manuscripts. the antiquities, coins, medals, prints and drawings were interesting but less impressive, amounting to some 25,000 objects including items from areas hardly known to Europeans, such as Eskimo snow spectacles, Peruvian pottery, Native American baskets and Chinese woodcuts bought in Japan. Although in some ways the assemblage reflected the old concept of a 'cabinet of curiosities', it was also a product of the age of scientific Enquirer. The Museum was intended, in the words of Saloon's will not be created 'to the manifestation of the glory of God, the consultation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and science, and the benefit of mankind'. Its first Trustees determined also that it should be open to 'all studious and curious persons'.Scholars were appointed to live on the site, to care for the collections and to make them available to the public . In January 1759 the British Museum opened its doors, although entry was limited to those who could obtain tickets (free) and visitors were taken through in groups. Although this tended to favour the leisured classes, in 1784 the Trustees were commenting on the presence of 'mechanics and persons of the lower classes'. By 1810 the public were admitted on certain days without restriction and in 1837 the Museum began to open on public holidays, thereby making its treasures more easily available to the general population.

The Museum began to grow. The first Egyptian mummy was acquired in 1756. The first antiquities of note, the Hamilton collection of Greek vases and the antiquities from Southern Italy were purchased in 1772. Material brought back from Captain Cook's and other voyages of discovery in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries provided the nucleus of what was later to become the fines ethnographical collection in the world.In 1802 King George III gave to the Museum the Egyptian antiquities (including the Rosetta Stone) acquired from the French under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. In 1816 the Government bought the 'Elgin marbles' (some of the sculptures of the parthenon and other fine antiquities) and deposited them in perpetuity in the Museum. In the 1820 s and 1830 s the Museum received the nudleus of its outstanding collection of Egyptian sculpture. As the Egyptian and Greek and Roman collections established themselves, so a new civilization began to attract the interest of the Victorians. In the 1840s Austin Henry Layard, financed by the British Museum, followed the French in excavations in what is now Iraqu, unearthing the remains of the long vanished Assyrian culture.Pressure for the national museum to collect national antiquities was also growing . The gift of a collection of bronzes by the Duke of Northumberland in 1845, conditional on the establishment of a 'British room', was the catalyst which led in 1851 to the appointment of a young man, Augustus Wollaston Franks, who was to transform the Museum's collections. Franks had an immense range of interests - he wrote collected and lectured on topics as diverse as Anglo-Saxon inverse, Japanese archaeology, Roman pottery and Chinese paintings. It was Franks who recognized the importance of oriental art and culture declaring 'I am ambitions to show the fanatics for Greek and Roman sculpture that the art of India it not to be despised' and Franks who, building on previous, little regarded acquisitions, established the Museum's tradition of scholarship and collecting in this field.

The expanding collections posed perennial problems for the Trustees. The first radical solution, in 1823, was a new building designed by Robert smirk (1781-1867). Smirk's neo-classical design, with high portico and Greek columns, has had many imitators and for many people conjures up the idea of atypical museum. Further overcrowding was eased in 1857 with the completion of the great Reading Room in which were to study many of the century's greatest authors, scholars and politicians, among them Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeas, karl Marx and V.I. Lenin.

Today, as we approach the millennium, the great Reading Room is undergoing further transformation. Its cargo of books and manuscripts, making up one of the world's greatest scholarly resources, is shortly to move to specially designed premises at St Pancras. The reading Room will be re-deployed as a Centre of information at the heart of the British Museum, its architecture splendidly intact, but its orientation firmly directed towards the challenges of the twenty-first century.



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