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The British Museum Business Information, Profile, and History

collection library world collections

Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
United Kingdom

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As a social enterprise the British Museum has exceptional reach. It creates a context in which cultures can be seen, experienced and studied in depth or compared and contrasted across time and space to inspire and delight over five million visitors a year. Through its public, curatorial, exhibition and education programmes the Museum engages with the public to advance understanding of the collections and cultures they represent.

History of The British Museum

Founded in 1753, The British Museum is not only one of the world's oldest, but also one of the world's largest museums, with a collection spanning more than seven million objects. The museum's range of art and antiquities reaches back some two million years, and the museum remains one of the most important repositories of artifacts retracing human civilization. Among the objects found at the museum are treasures such as the Rosetta Stone, which provided the means for decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures from the ancient Greek Parthenon; the Black Obelisk; and African and Asian collections. The museum also boasts a prominent collection of artifacts from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. The British Museum has provided free and unlimited access to its collections for nearly 200 years, and remains one of the country's top tourist attractions. Each year, the museum records more than 5.5 million visitors. The museum is supported by government grants, through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, as well as through corporate sponsorships and through ancillary sales of gifts, books, and other merchandise, sold directly by the museum or under license. Yet these funds are rarely enough to cover the museum's entire budget, and the museum often operates under budget deficits that have reached as high as £8 million in the early 2000s. Neil MacGregor, formerly with the London Gallery, is the British Museum's director.

18th-Century Origins

As with the world's other great museums, including the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the British Museum is the result of the surge in interest in ancient cultures and civilizations that took place during the Renaissance era. The period saw the appearance of a great many naturalists, archeologists, anthropologists, botanists, ornithologists, and the like, many of whom, whether working in an amateur or professional capacity, amassed extraordinary collections of artifacts, specimens, and species from all over the world.

Britain's status as a naval and colonial force placed it at the center of this new breed of scientific exploration. The scope of the British empire made it possible for its subjects to scour the Earth in search of new treasures. Among them was physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, born in 1660. Sloane's interest in naturalism led him to accept the position as physician to the governor of Jamaica in 1687. In less than two years, Sloane had collected more than 800 species of plants and other living specimens. Back in London, Sloane became quite wealthy, serving as physician to, among others, King George I, Queen Anne, and King George II.

Sloane's interest in collecting remained unabated, however. Indeed, Sloane went on to buy the collections of others, such as those of William Charlton and James Petiver. Sloane's collection of books, coins, artifacts, and natural history specimens had grown so large that he was forced to buy a neighboring house in order to have enough space. At his death in 1753, Sloane's collection consisted of more than 71,000 items.

Sloane's will sought to preserve the integrity of his collection by stipulating that the entire collection become the property of King George II and the British people, in exchange for a payment of £20,000 to Sloane's two daughters. Failing that, the collection was to be sold off in pieces to various overseas institutions. Although the king at first remained uninterested in the collection, the British parliament quickly passed an act establishing a new British Museum. At the same time, the museum was to incorporate another government holding, the Cotton collection of manuscripts, held by the government since 1700. Parliament also decided to spend £10,000 for the purchase of the Harleian manuscripts. These three collections then formed the basis of what was to become one of the world's largest and most respected museums.

The museum's collection was boosted in 1757 when King George II added another collection of manuscripts, the Old Royal Library. At the same time, the museum received the copyright to these publications. A location was found in the Montagu House, a mansion in the Bloomsbury section of London, which was to remain the museum's site into the 21st century. The museum's gardens were first opened to the public in 1757. In 1759, the museum itself was ready to open its doors to the public.

From the outset, the British Museum was established as belonging to the British people, with free access offered to all. In the early years, however, admission was granted on the basis of tickets, which were obtained in advance. Visits were limited to escorted tours in small groups. These practices were abandoned in 1810, when the museum ended the ticket system and escorted visits were no longer required.

By then, the museum's collection had grown substantially. Among the objects acquired during the 19th century were the famed Rosetta Stone, from which Egyptian hieroglyphs were decoded, acquired in 1802, and the Charles Townley collection of classical sculptures. This collection led to the establishment of a new Townley Gallery, focused on classical and Egyptian artifacts.

Golden Age in the Late 19th Century

The British Museum's important--if controversial--association with Greek civilization took off in 1814 when the museum bought the Phigaleian Marbles, a series of sculptures from the Temple of Apollo in Bassae. Two years later, the museum acquired the Elgin Marbles as well, a series of sculptures from the Parthenon sold to the museum by Lord Elgin.

In 1823, Robert Smirke designed a new building to house the museum's growing collection, which included the King's Library, donated to the museum by King George IV. Work on the new building was to last until 1852. Upon its completion, the museum launched construction of a new structure, the Reading Room, which was completed in 1857.

Into the mid-19th century, the British Museum not only emerged as one of the world's foremost repositories of ancient human civilization, but also had become an active participant in the search for more of the world's treasures. The museum began sponsoring excavations and other scientific explorations, such as the work conducted by Austen Henry Layard in the 1840s in Assyria.

The last half of the 19th century saw the museum enter its Golden Age with the emerging triumph of science over religion and the development of new scientific disciplines, particularly the development of new conservation techniques. The museum, therefore, not only played a prominent role in the discovery and categorization of new artifacts, it also became an important part of the effort to conserve and restore the world's antiquities. The museum's development in conservation techniques ultimately resulted in the creation of a temporary research laboratory in 1920, which in turn led to the founding of the permanent Research Laboratory in 1931.

Other important additions continued to flow into the museum through the end of the century. In 1863, for example, Charles Turtle Wood, under the museum's auspices, began excavating at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesos, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 1869, the museum received the famed Island Statue from Queen Victoria. By then, too, the museum had been given the collection of ethnographical and prehistoric artifacts gathered by Henry Christy, on his death in 1865.

The museum began introducing electricity in the 1870s, lighting the Reading Room first in 1879 before extending lighting throughout the museum in 1890. The Reading Room would host the studies of a number of prominent personalities of the era, including Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

Financial Crises into the 21st Century

An important moment in the museum's history came in 1880 when the museum's natural history collections were transferred to a new building in South Kensington. The transfer process was completed in 1883, and the site later became known as the British Natural History Museum.

Into the World War I period, the museum continued to expand, adding the White Wing, fronting Montagu Street in 1885, and the King Edward VII Galleries, completed in 1914. Fears of bombing at the end of World War I led the museum to close and move part of its collection to safety in 1918. The museum was to come under still heavier threat during World War II, however. Evacuation began in 1939. In 1941, the building was hit by an incendiary raid. For the duration, however, much of the museum's collection was housed in an underground facility at Bradford on Avon.

Changes were in store for the museum during the postwar period. The first discussions were held in 1943 on splitting off the museum's library. In 1963, the passage of the New British Museum Act formally separated the museum and its natural history component. This act was followed ten years later with the British Library act of 1972 creating a single British Library, which included the museum's libraries. The new library was established in 1973; the collection, however, remained at the museum until the opening of a new library at St. Pancras in 1997.

Funding for the museum, and the willingness to increase the museum's budget, varied considerably with successive British governments, and the British Museum often found itself confronting fresh financial crises. Forced to find new ways of supplementing its budget--and barred from charging admission--the museum turned to merchandising in the early 1970s. In 1973, the museum established The British Museum Company Ltd., which became responsible for operating the museum's retail wing, as well as overseeing its wholesale sales, production of replicas of objects in the collection, and licensing of the museum brand and logo. The museum also established the British Museum Press that year, which became the world's leading museum-based publishing company.

Yet these funds were not always enough to overcome the museum's increasingly recurrent budget crises. In the mid-1990s, the museum's financial difficulties erupted in a scandal, when, in 1996, a commission discovered that the museum had been operating without an accountant. This discovery came on top of an extended period of relative budget indifference: For more than a decade, the government-provided increases in the museum's annual budget failed to keep up with inflation. As a result, by the time a new financial crisis emerged in the early 2000s, the museum's budget had in fact decreased by some 30 percent in real currency.

Adding to the museum's difficulties was a massive project, worth some $145 million, to cover the Great Court. Yet funding for the project, in large part through the National Lottery, came with a catch: that the Great Court, and hence the museum itself, remain open until late at night. Yet the Great Court proved far less attractive--at least in the evening--than had been expected, and the expenses of keeping the museum open only added to the museum's financial woes.

Worse, the tourist drop-off after the September 11 attacks in 2001 saw a huge slump in admission, which fell to just 4.2 million from the museum's more usual 5.5 million visitors per year. At the same time, the museum had been planning a new expansion, a new study center slated at a cost of $118 million, as a centerpiece for its future strategy. Yet the museum was forced to recognize that it could not afford to operate the new center, and the project was dropped after incurring more than $17 million in expenses.

By 2002, the museum was operating with a deficit of more than £6.5 million. Forced to cut back on services, it closed many of the galleries and opened a number only part-time. The museum also began a painful staff-cutting exercise, sinking employee morale. By June 2002, the threat of further staff cuts led to a strike among the museum's employees--the first time the museum had been shut down by strike since its founding.

In response, the museum brought in a new director, Neil MacGregor, who had formerly headed the London Gallery, to direct the British Museum. MacGregor joined in time to help celebrate the musuem's 250th anniversary in 2003. Yet the new director also joined in time to confront a new and growing controversy, that of the demands by certain countries for the return of their artifacts. A famous example of this trend was the Greek government's demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles, a request steadfastly refused by the British Museum. After more than 250 years, the museum remained a symbol of the Renaissance era's thirst for knowledge, and one of the world's leading repositories for the history of human civilization.

Principal Subsidiaries: The British Museum Company Ltd.; The British Museum Press.

Principal Competitors: Metropolitan Museum; The Louvre; Berlin State Museum; Smithsonian Institution; State Hermitage Museum.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:
  • 1753: The British Museum is established by an act of Parliament, based on the collections of Sloane, Cotton, and Harleian.
  • 1759: The British Museum is first opened to the public.
  • 1810: The ticket admission system ends.
  • 1842: Construction begins on a new, permanent building.
  • 1931: The museum establishes a dedicated Research Laboratory, the first in the world devoted to development of conservation techniques.
  • 1963: The New British Museum Act formally separates the natural history collection, establishing the British Natural History Museum.
  • 1972: The museum library is placed under a new, separate body, the British Library.
  • 1973: The British Museum Company Ltd. and the British Museum Press are launched.
  • 1997: The library moves into a new facility at St. Pancras.
  • 2000: The $145 million Great Court is opened.
  • 2003: The museum celebrates its 250th anniversary.
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