In the photo above you can see the wonderful nineteenth century British Museum building we know today, designed by the architect Sir Robert Smirke in Greek revival style. The magnificent entrance is fronted by giant ionic columns dominating the forecourt and the huge pediment, seen more clearly in the picture below, is the work of Sir Richard Westmacott. It tells the story of the rise of civilization through classically designed figures representing human developments such as architecture, poetry and science. The whole building is constructed as a quadrangle with four wings: the north, east, south and west wings.
The current building however, wasn’t the first home of the British Museum. That was a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House built for the Duke of Montagu, in Bloomsbury close by. You can see a picture of it below. By the eighteenth century the 2nd Duke had decided to move to the more fashionable Whitehall area. He sold his Bloomsbury house to the newly formed Trustees of the British Museum, to house the enormous collection of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was a wealthy and popular physician to high society in eighteenth-century London and he lived in Bloomsbury Place just off Bloomsbury Square. He was also a collector and by the time of his death he had amassed one of the greatest ever private collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and other curios, containing more than 71,000 objects. He wanted the collection to be preserved intact after his death so he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. The condition was that a public museum was built to display the objects. Montagu House was bought and the Museum opened with free entry for all ‘curious and studious’ people. It is acknowleged today that Sloane had links to slavery and his statue in the Museum has been moved to a less prominent position.
By the early 19th century it was clear that, with increasing acquisitions and visitor numbers, a much larger British Museum building was needed. So Montagu House was demolished and the current museum was erected complete with the Reading Room fully opened to the public in 1857. The Reading Room was to become world famous as a centre of learning and was located in the empty central courtyard. It was built in the shape of a dome inspired by the Parthenon in Greece with its unusual blue, cream and gold decoration. Iron bookcases were constructed containing 25 miles of shelves. Among the books were The King’s Library, a collection of over 60,000 books, given to the nation in 1823 by King George IV (George II’s great grandson). This collection is now in the British LIbrary.
Those wanting to use the library had to apply in writing and were issued a reader’s ticket by the Principal Librarian. Among those granted tickets were: Karl Marx , Lenin (who signed in under the name Jacob Richter) and novelists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The back of the museum was developed later in the 19th century and more galleries opened and the Great Court was redesigned in 2000. This was a vast project undertaken by Foster and Partners that opened up the two acres of courtyard that had been closed off for many years.
Some of the most precious items ever found are on display in the British Museum. For example, the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799. The stone has a message carved into it written in three different languages including Egyptian hieroglyphs which at the time were not understood. Scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on the stone as the key to decipher the ancient Egyptian picture writing. This wasn’t the only object brought back from Egypt. Archaeological objects found during Bonaparte’s campaign in British Egypt came to the British Museum after his defeat. Some of these were extremely large and so the new galleries were constructed with reinforced floors.
Collectors through the decades, including Hans Sloane, donated items from European and British Prehistory. Until the mid to late 19th century most scholars believed that the world began in 4004 BC following Archbishop Ussher’s calculations in the 17th century. There was a misunderstanding of the chronology of the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age and a feeling that classical civilisation was the better history. But because of far-sighted curators, these items, despite being poorly understood, were kept for future generations to see and of course to study. Over the years, other important prehistoric discoveries have been added to the collections. Some British contributions are detailed below.
The Snettisham Torc
The Snettisham Great Torc, shown above, was found in Norfolk in 1950 during ploughing and was initially dismissed as rubbish. When cleaned it was discovered to be a most remarkable piece of metalwork. Analysis shows it is made from twisted threads of gold mixed with silver. The decorated ends were cast in moulds. A torc is a neck ring, worn by the elite members of Iron Age tribes, perhaps for important occasions. This one comes apart and can be taken on and off easily. Further work in the area of the find has revealed many more torcs, some of which are also displayed in the British Museum. The torcs were clearly buried deliberately in hoards, alongside other items including coins which have helped to date the torcs to the first century BC. Snettisham is located in the area where the Iceni tribe lived and it may be that these special objects belonged to the ancestors of Boudicca, the queen who tried to take on the Romans. Certainly it shows us that there was wealth and sophistication in Iron Age Britain.
Room 41 in the British Museum has a large display of the finds from the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Suffolk. One of the finds was a highly decorated helmet made from iron and copper. In the photo you can see the surviving pieces of the helmet built into a reconstruction to show its overall design.
With the helmet was this fine wooden shield. The original wood had rotted away and the museum has produced a replica with the metal work, highly decorated like the helmet, attached. The ship and the body that were buried left only impressions on the ground but the metal work that accompanied the deceased survived. The quality of the objects in the grave transformed understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period and shows the power and prestige the leaders of the time could demonstrate through their material possessions.
This rich burial came to light after excavation in 1939 and even today the work goes on in the Museum to learn as much as possible from the finds. The story of the excavation is told in the recent Netflix film ‘The Dig.’
And much, much more ….
Today, the Museum continues to collect, preserve, display and keep important artefacts. This includes recent finds as well as those acquired long ago, some of which attract controversy: for example, the Parthenon marbles collected by the Earl of Elgin at the beginning of the19th century and which the Greek government would like returned.
There are many important exhibitions held at the Museum and displays are constantly changing, making this one of the most iconic museums in the world attracting millions of visitors each year.
Image at top of the page is of the British Museum, (c) Kirstie Shedden, 2021