The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Sloane wanted his collection of more than 71,000 objects, library and herbarium to be preserved intact after his death. He bequeathed it to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his heirs. If refused, the collection was to be offered to centres of learning abroad. A large and influential group of Trustees was charged with overseeing the disposition of his estate.
The King had little interest but Parliament, led by the Speaker, Arthur Onslow, was persuaded to accept the gift. An Act of Parliament establishing the British Museum received the royal assent on 7 June 1753. This stated that the funds for the purchase and storage of the collections should be raised by public lottery.
The Cotton collection of manuscripts, given to the nation in 1700, was attached to the new museum and £10,000 was expended on the purchase of the Harleian collection of manuscripts. A new Board of Trustees was established.
The foundation collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural history with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnography (the study of cultures). In 1757 King George II donated the 'Old Royal Library' of the sovereigns of England and with it the privilege of copyright receipt.
The Museum was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building.
On 15 January 1759 the British Museum opened to the public. With the exception of two World Wars, when parts of the collection were evacuated, it has remained open ever since, gradually increasing its opening hours and moving from an attendance of 5,000 per year to today's 5 million.
From its beginnings the British Museum was a new type of institution. Governed by a body of Trustees responsible to Parliament, its collections belonged to the nation, with free admission for all. Entry was given to 'all studious and curious Persons’, linking public enjoyment with education.
Access to the library and information on the collections has always been available through the Reading Room. The first students' room, Prints & Drawings, opened in 1808.
The first famous antiquities, Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases and other classical objects, were purchased in 1772. These were followed by such high profile acquisitions as the Rosetta Stone and other antiquities from Egypt (1802), the Townley collection of classical sculpture (1805), and the sculptures of the Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles (1816).
As the natural history collections and the library expanded, Montagu House was rapidly outgrown. In 1823 the gift to the nation by George IV of his father's library (the King's Library) lead to the construction of today's quadrangular building designed by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). The first phase was completed in 1852. Construction of the round Reading Room followed, designed by Robert's brother Sydney (1798-1877, and positioned in the central courtyard in 1854-7.
Visitor numbers increased greatly during the 19th century. The Museum attracted great crowds of all ages and social classes, particularly on public holidays. As academic work continued with the publication of the Museum's series of detailed catalogues, many curators took an interest in broadening the Museum's appeal through lectures and improving the displays. The first popular Synopsis (or guide) to the collections was published in 1808 and ran to over sixty editions before splitting into more detailed illustrated guide books by the end of the century.
The Museum was much involved in excavation abroad. Its Assyrian collections formed the basis for the understanding of cuneiform (an ancient Middle Eastern script). In the same way the Rosetta Stone had resulted in the unlocking of Egyptian hieroglyphic script (a symbol-based script). The appointment in 1851 of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97) led to the growth of such fields as British and European prehistory and other material, ethnography, oriental art and archaeology.
In the 1880s the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington, which became the Natural History Museum. This departure and the construction of the White Wing (fronting Montague Street) made room for the increasing collections. King Edward VII's Galleries, formally opened in 1914, the Duveen Gallery (1939/62) and the New Wing (1978) provided additional public facilities, offices, display areas and library storage. However, solutions to the lack of space in the Museum still had to be found.
In 1973 the library became part of a new organisation, the British Library. The books left Bloomsbury for a new building at St Pancras in 1997.
The twentieth century, particularly the second half, saw a great expansion in public services. The first summary guide was published in 1903 and a sales counter was introduced in 1912. The first guide lecturer was appointed in 1911. A full time exhibition designer was appointed in 1964 who initiated an active programme of gallery refurbishment. An education service was set up in 1970 and a publishing company in 1973.
This public expansion was reflected in the opening in 2000 of The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which was created in part of the space vacated by the library. At the centre is the restored Reading Room, while around and beneath it new galleries, including the Sainsbury Africa galleries and the Wellcome Gallery, and the Clore Education Centre were built.
The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 with the resoration of the King's Library, the Museum's oldest room, and the launch of a new permanent exhibition inside it called Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.
Some important dates in the history of The British Museum.
1753 On 7 June, King George II gave his assent to the British Museum Act for the purchase of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane and the Harleian collection of manuscripts. To this was added the library of Sir Robert Cotton, which had formed the nucleus of the Museum.
1757 The Royal Library, founded by Edward IV in 1471, was given to the Museum by King George II.
1759 The British Museum was opened to the public (in Monatagu House, Bloomsbury); admission was by ticket only.
1802 A number of antiquities from Egypt, including the Rosetta Stone, were presented to the Museum by George III, following the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Treaty of Alexandria in 1801.
1808 Opening of the Townley Gallery.
1816 The sculptures from the Parthenon, which had been acquired by Lord Elgin, were presented to the Museum, having been bought for the nation for £35,000.
1823 The Trustees agreed to accept the library of King George III which was donated by George IV. A new building for the Museum became essential as Montagu House was already in a decaying condition. Robert Smirke was assigned the task, as one of the three attached architects to the Office of Works, to design the new building. Work started in the same year and the project took 30 years to complete.
1828 The King George III library was transferred to the Museum.
1842-5 Montagu House was demolished.
1847 The new entrance hall was opened.
1852 Montagu House Gatehouse and wall were replaced by railings and a wall along Great Russell Street.
1880-3 The Natural History section was transferred to new premises at South Kensington.
1907 The foundation stone of the King Edward VII galleries was laid by the King. The galleries took six years to complete and were opened in 1914 by King George V.
1914-18 The Museum suffered no serious damage in the First World War: a piece of shrapnel entered the Iron Library and ripped the backs off two books. Some of the most valuable objects were stored in the newly completed Postal Tube Railway and later in the National Libray of Wales. Objects too heavy to move were sandbagged.
1938-9 The building of the Duveen Gallery was completed, but the outbreak of war delayed the installation of the Parthenon Sculptures. The architect was John Russell Pope who had designed the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Duveen gallery was hit by a small bomb in 1940, causing a fair amount of damage to the interior.
1939-45 The Second World War. All objects of first importance that could be transported were sent ot of London or stored in an unused stretch of the London Underground. The heavier sculptures were placed in the basement or left in situ, protected by sandbags and blast walls.
1941 A cluster of incendiary bombs fell on the Museum on the night of 10 May, causing serious fires and over 250,000 books were lost. The Museum was closed until 24 April 1946, although a skeleton service was provided for readers in the North Library.
1962 The restored Duveen Gallery was opened to the public.
1963 A revised British Museum Act was passed under which the Natural History Museum became completely independent with its own body of Trustees.
1970 The department of Ethnography was transferred to Burlington Gardens, Piccadilly. The building, formerly the Civil Service Commission and built for the University of London, was named the Museum of Mankind.
1972 The Museum exhibited 'Treasures of Tutankhamun' on loan from Egypt and received 1,694,117 visitors, the largest attendance ever at a temporary exhibition.
1973 The former British Museum Library departments were vested under the separate authority of the British Library Board to form part of the British Library Reference Division.
1980 The New Wing (built 1973-78) designed by Colin St John Wilson, an extension to house offices, restaurant and an exhibition gallery was formally opened by the Secretary of State for the Environment.
1985 A new suite of galleries, funded by the Wolfson Foundation, was opened to display the Townley Collection.
1990 Three exhibition rooms, constructed in top of the King Edward VII building, were completed to house temporary Japanese exhibitions. Most of the money for the project was raised in Japan.
1994 Opening of a new Mexican gallery, which heralded the eventual return to Bloomsbury of all ethnographical collections held at the Museum of Mankind. In the same year, the British Museum Development Trust was relaunched to raise money for the Museum's Millennium project, the Great Court, the centrepiece of a development programme for the 250th anniversary of the Museum in 2003. Sir Norman Foster & partners were appointed as the Museum's consultant architectural firm.
1995 The Museum purchased the former Royal Mail Central Sorting Office, located at the southern end of Museum Street, which will house the new British Museum Study centre; initially opening in 2001, with full opening in 2003.
1996 The Museum was awarded £30 million by the Millennium Commission for the development of the Great Court.
1997 25 October The British Library Reading room closed. It will open in December 2000 to all Museum visitors, incorporating the Walter & Leonore Annenberg Centre, the Paul Hamlyn Library and COMPASS, a major innovation in museum, multimedia and public-access systems.
31 December The Museum of Mankind closed permanently in preparation for the Department of Ethnography's return to Bloomsbury
1998 March building constructors moved into the heart of the Museum marking the first stage in the construction of the Great Court. A tower crane was installed in the forecourt to remove material from the inner courtyard; a total of 20,000cubic metres of demolition and excavation material was cleared from this area.
£15.75 million was awarded to the Museum by the Heritage Lottery Fund for support towards the Education and Information Centre within the Great Court.
November a second tower crane was installed inside the inner courtyard, which will be used to construct a glass roof over the Great Court - London's first covered square.
1999 26 June The Chase Manhattan Gallery of North America opened with the inaugural exhibition, entitled First Peoples, First Contact: Native Peoples of North America.
13 July The Roxie Walker Galleries of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology opened to re-display the Museum's popular collection of mummies, coffins and funerary goods.
2000 8 November The Korean Foundation Gallery opened. It presents an overview ofKorean art and archaeology from the Neolithic period to the present,including major loans from the National Museum of Korea and Museums across the UK.
7 December the Great Court opened to the public.
2001 2 March TheSainsbury African Galleries will open to display a wide range of objects from Africa's rich cultures, both past and contemporary.