The British Museum opened to the public for the first time on this day in 1759. It was the world’s first national museum. Unlike other national collections at the time, it didn’t belong to a king or to the Church and was freely open to the public. The museum was opened after a man called Sir Hans Sloane left his huge cabinet of curiosities to King George II, on condition that it be available to the public. As he had spent a lifetime gathering over 71,000 items, he wanted his collection to be kept intact. Sloane was a physician who began collecting plants and books about plants, but his cabinet also included coins, jewellery, fish, birds, mammals, scientific instruments, paintings. His interests were wide ranging. After working in Jamaica, he also gathered a lot of cultural artefacts from the Americas. He gave his cabinet in exchange for £20,000 which was to be given to his two daughters. It was actually worth around £80,000 but still The King was reluctant, he wasn’t a fan of the arts and sciences. In fact he hated ‘bainting and boetry.’ The government weren’t terribly keen either but eventually they raised the money with a public lottery. For many years after it opened, it was still referred to as a ‘cabinet’ rather than a museum.
There had been many cabinets of curiosity all over Europe since the sixteenth century. They were really the forerunners of the museum. They sound like small things, kept in cupboards, but actually they were whole rooms stuffed with anything and everything that the collector was interested in. They usually belonged to royalty or nobility. It was its owner’s world in microcosm and represented his power and influence. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II had one that included a live lion and tiger who roamed about freely. We know this because there are records of the compensation paid to those injured by the animals or to the families of their victims.
The British Museum is a far less dangerous place to visit, but it does still represent the power that the British Empire once had. We have stuff from all over the world there and certainly some things we definitely shouldn’t have. But they are, at least, safe and well preserved. Before the museum opened, three other libraries were added to the collection. These included some very rare books. From the library of Robert Cotton, we have the Lindisfarne Gospels which were saved after the dissolution of the monasteries. We also have the only copies of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘Beowulf’. It’s really a pity the British Museum didn’t get it’s act together sooner as, in 1731, the world’s only copy of Beowulf was very badly damaged in a house fire and around a quarter of the Cottonian Library was either damaged or destroyed completely.
The original museum was located in a seventeenth century mansion called Montagu House which was on the same site as the present museum. Before it opened, there was much debate among the trustees over who should and should not be allowed to see it. They weren’t very sure about letting in servants, or members of the lower classes in general, in case they upset the museum’s more refined visitors. Eventually they decided just to take a good look at everyone. If they were smartly dressed, well-behaved and didn’t appear to be under the age of ten, then they would be issued a ticket and allowed in. But only in groups of not more than fifteen and they must be accompanied at all times. One group each hour between 10 am and 2 pm. That’s a whole seventy-five visitors a day.
Now there are thousands of visitors there every day and we can wear what we like. The size of the building and the collection has also expanded massively. It’s one of my favourite places to visit in London and this seems like an excellent opportunity to share with you a couple of my current favourite exhibits. The massive gold ship is actually a combined clock and table decoration. It also played music and fired its canons. Every home should have one. Unfortunately, it no longer works. There are three clockwork mechanisms inside. One for the clock, one that played a drum inside and has bellows to operate a tiny organ. The third made it travel across the table. When it stopped and fired all its guns, the guests knew that dinner was about to be served. It was made in about 1585 by Hans Schlottheim. It’s just the sort of thing Rudolph II would have loved and, for a while, everyone assumed it was his, but it seems to have belonged to an Elector of Saxony.
My second offering is far less grandiose, and easily missed. There is a set of tiles depicting scenes from the early life of Jesus. It appears that people who knew young Jesus had a bit of a hard time. Especially if they did anything to upset him. There seem to be quite a few people suddenly falling down dead. If you go and look at this exhibit, you can see Jesus being slapped by his teacher and Jesus pulling a boy out through a keyhole so they can play together. The one I like best though, pictured below is captioned: “Left: Jesus makes pools by the River Jordan. A bully destroys one and falls dead. Right: Jesus restores the boy to life by touching him with his foot. But it is clearly a picture of Jesus kicking him. So I think of it as ‘the picture of Jesus kicking a boy back to life’.