The British Museum in London was opened to the public on 15th January 1759. The museum actually started life in1753, after Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, naturalist and collector, left his entire collection of over 71,000 objects to King George II. Sloane wished for his artefacts to be preserved for the nation, in return for a one off payment of £20,000 to his heirs.
The Sloane collection was originally housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury, London. Later, in the early part of the nineteenth century, many high profile acquisitions were made, including the Rosetta Stone, in 1802 and the Parthenon sculptures, in 1816.
King George IV added his own gift to the museum by passing on his father’s library (known as the King’s Library). It was the need to house all these new pieces and books that led to the building of the museum’s famous quadrangular structure. This, along with the museum’s reading room, was built by 1857.
The number of natural history donations was so vast that the entire collection was moved to new premises in South Kensington in the 1880s. This became the separate Natural History Museum.
As the museum continued to grow, it became involved in historical and archaeological research of its own. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script), and the Rosetta Stone has resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Visitor numbers increased greatly during the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century saw an expansion in its educational services. In the 1970s there were fresh refurbishments and an in-house publishing company was established. In 1973 the library became the British Library.
In 2003, the British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary. Approximately 5000 people visited each year in the 1800’s. The museum, which has always been free to enter, now annually welcomes 6 million people through its doors.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.