More than 260 years ago, in 1753, through the British Museum Act, the famous British Museum in London received royal consent and, thus, the world’s first public national museum was instituted. It is only fair to remember that until that moment valuable collections of artistic and diverse objects were the exclusive prerogative of royalty and wealthy families. Those were private collections, closed to the public.
The decision of the British parliament to acquire (for £ 20,000) and publicly display the collection of more than 80,000 pieces belonging to the Irish physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was a gesture of extraordinary value in that time and of unconcealed influence for posterity. With the British Museum Act, the British parliament proclaimed the right of every citizen not only to information but to knowledge. Everyone could then explore their own place in the world through Sloane’s extensive collection and, in addition, completely free. Most important of it all is that the British Museum would operate as an institution independently of any government policy.
But what was foresaw about this new institution? Well, a new type of citizen was expected: free, informed and equipped with the indispensable to have an independent thought. For this fundamental reason, the institution was baptized with the name we know today: British Museum. More than two centuries and a half has passed and these principles continue to be intact as this museum houses a collection of varied objects that registers the history of the world from millions of years in the past to the present.
The British Museum, it’s worth saying, generated two important institutions: the Natural History Museum and the British Library, the latter with the possibility of unlimited expansion by being entitled to a copy of each book published in the country.
Although, in the first decades of existence, this museum was more a cabinet of curiosities, by the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, updates of pieces from ancient Greek and Roman cultures began to give it a different look. Of all, without a doubt, the extraordinary marbles of Elgin, from the Parthenon itself, in Athens, became the British Museum in a kind of privileged reliquary for the most excellent sample of classical Greek art. (The controversy surrounding this unique pieces of Cultural Heritage deserves another post).
In 1802, the famous Rosetta Stone would become part of this museum’s collection, key to the subsequent description of the hieroglyphs. Later, objects from the ancient Assyrian and Sumerian cultures would arrive, but the collection would never stop its growth and expansion.
Today, the British Museum is the largest museum complex in the world, whose expansion began in the third decade of the nineteenth century, not to stop until the inauguration of its most modern spaces in the year 2000. In total, it covers about 92,000 m2, plus 21,000 m2 of space for deposit. The downside is that despite the enormous growth of its exhibition spaces, the British Museum can only show the public about 1% of its collection.
The growth of the British Museum has been exponential over the years. Of the initial 80,000 pieces, about 8 million must be counted today, which cover each and every country in the world. Visitors were ready to pour its halls. Nearly 5,000 people visited the museum in 1759, but since 2014 this British institution has sustained a solid 6 million visitors every year. To that add 10 monarchs that, from Jorge II to Elizabeth II, have seen the growth of the most emblematic British cultural institution.
But not only regular royalty has seen this remarkable museum become what it is today. Cats have also been part of the British Museum, keeping the rodent population under control for the sake of the very important cultural treasure it shelters, study, preserves and exhibits everyday.
Photos by: Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash / Sam Barber on Unsplash / Nicolas Lysandrou on Unsplash