Founded on a love for sharks with one ear

The British Museum
September 20, 2002

A corrupt lottery, a wily will and the problem of plebs. Christopher Ondaatje tells the story of the British Museum.

This is not the first history of the British Museum, but it is by far the most thorough as well as being readable and sometimes opinionated - unlike the bibliocentric That Noble Cabinet by Edward Miller. Its author, David Wilson, was on the staff of the museum from 1955 until 1992 and its director from 1977. He admits that his own earlier treatise, The British Museum: Purpose and Politics (1989), was written in a mood of frustration and impatience and with a more limited intention: to counteract uninformed comment in the media and Parliament by explaining the ethos of the museum to the reader. The new book, by contrast, is aimed at a much more international audience.

It is a definitive account, published for the 250th anniversary of the museum's founding, that describes how it arrived at its current state. The journey has been fraught with challenges, mistakes, squabbles, triumphs and political manoeuvring. The book contains fascinating information on the museum's beginnings in the 18th century, its spectacular years of acquisition in the 19th century, and its glorious Great Court scheme, opened by the Queen in 2000, which has been both successful and controversial because it has cost more than the museum could afford. It chronicles the museum's up-and-down relationship with the government and its chronic lack of financial support from the Treasury.

The story begins in 1753 with the death and will of Sir Hans Sloane. A typically humorous letter from Horace Walpole to a friend describes a tenuous situation: "Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of his museumI He valued it at fourscore thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese! It is a rent charge to keep the foetuses in spirits! You may think that those, who think money the most valuable of all curiosities, will not be purchasers. The King has excused himself saying that he did not believe that there are twenty thousand pounds in the treasury. We are a charming, wise set, all philosophers, botanists, antiquarians and mathematicians and adjourned our first meeting because Lord Macclesfield, our chairman, was engaged to a party for finding out the longitude. One of our number is a Moravian, who signs himself Henry XXVIII, Count de Reus. The Moravians have settled a colony at Chelsea in Sir Hans's neighbourhood, and I believe he intended to beg Count Henry XXVIII's skeleton for his museum."

Sloane had been a fashionable physician with an illustrious career. He was physician to the royal household and attended Queen Anne on her deathbed, and was physician general to the army. In 1719, he became president of the College of Physicians, and in 17 succeeded Newton as president of the Royal Society. By the time he died in Chelsea in 1753, he had assembled "one of the greatest universal collections ever made by one man". He belonged to an age that was, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, "perhaps the last period in the history of Western Europe when human omniscience was thought to be an achievable goal". Although most of his collection was of the natural world - of which the collection of Orientalia formed by the German Engelbert Kaempfer, medical officer of the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki in 1690-92, was the most outstanding - taken as a whole it was a miscellany that illustrated English history up to the Restoration.

Sloane's will stated: "Being fully convinced that nothing tends to raise our ideas of the power, wisdom, goodness, providence, and other perfections of the Deity, or (is) more to the comfort and well being of his creatures than the enlargement of our knowledge in the work of nature, I do Will and desire that for the promoting of these noble ends, the glory of God and the good of man, my collection in all its branches may be, if possible kept and preserved together whole and intireI that the same may be, from time to time, visited and seen by all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same, under such statutes, directions, rules and orders, as shall be made from time to time, by the said trustees."

However, as Wilson says, "there was a sting in the tail, placed there by a wily old man who knew his way around the corridors of power" - "and I do hereby request and desire that the said trustees, or any seven or more of them do make their humble application to his majesty or to parliament, at the next sessions after my decease, as shall be thought most proper, in order to pay the full and clear sum of twenty thousand pounds of lawful money of Great Britain, unto my executors (Sloane's daughters)." If this were not approved, the collection was to be offered to the academies of St Petersburg, Paris, Berlin and Madrid in turn. If all should refuse, it was to be sold.

After much debate, the House of Commons approved the grant of £20,000 and a lottery was initiated to provide further money to purchase and house two major libraries that would complement it. By an act of Parliament, the Sloane collection and the books (and their building) were to be known as the British Museum. The lottery was as "corrupt, dishonest and criminally mismanaged as any in the 18th century", writes Wilson. But it produced for the museum's trustees a sum of £95,194 7s. 2d., from which was deducted the £20,000 due to Sloane's executors. A capital sum of £30,000 was invested and provided most of the running costs of the museum for the next 70 years at an annual income of £1,200.

Montagu House, the present site, was purchased in 1754 for £10,000, and a further £17,000 was spent on repairs. In 1759, it opened to the public, but to a highly circumscribed group. "The idea that the noisome lower classes should be allowed into the museum with the middle and upper classes was to exercise the minds of the trustees for the next 75 years," Wilson says.

He describes the dictatorial interventions of Sir Joseph Banks, who became a trustee ex officio as president of the Royal Society in 1778, and the involvement of Sir William Hamilton, another many-faceted collector (and husband of Nelson's mistress Emma), who was an influential trustee. "With the purchase of the Hamilton collection the museum began to change its character, moving away from domination by books and natural history towards the institution it is today." Acquisitions included the Elgin Marbles, purchased in 1815 for a mere £35,000 from a practically bankrupt Lord Elgin.

Joseph Planta, the principal librarian from 1799 to 18, was the person most responsible for opening up the museum to a wider public. From 13,046 visitors in 1807, the number increased to 79,131 in 1829, the year of Planta's death. He also supervised the acquisition of a vast range of new collections, doubled the staff, politicked for increased government grants and saw the completion of two major new buildings.

Wilson artfully guides us through the museum's problems and solutions in the 19th century, especially the period from 1860 onwards, "Fission and consolidation" - which was the most important in its history - during which the natural history collection was moved to South Kensington. By the century's end, the British Museum of today was largely in place.

There followed the years of "War and space" from 1897 to 1945, which saw the opening of the King Edward VII building and two world wars. The British Museum suffered more bomb damage than any other national museum and, despite optimistic assessments, the period of reconstruction proved a long haul. It began to recover physically only in the late 1960s and 1970s.

When Wilson joined the department of British and medieval antiquities in 1955, the trustee system was creaking. Sweeping changes followed. In 1963, a board of 51 trustees was replaced by one of 25, and the trustees were allowed to nominate their own chairman. The appointment of the director was to be confirmed by the prime minister, not the sovereign, and the trustees were to report to Parliament on a triennial basis. Ten years later, the British Library was officially separated from the museum.

Over the next quarter of a century, through troubled and expansive times, the museum led the way, along with the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, in resisting admission charges. Its financial underpinnings deteriorated, except for a short time in the 1970s, probably as a result, according to the author, of "the creation of the Ministry for the Arts and the separation of financial control from the Treasury". He adds: "Having funded the National Lottery, the British government expects one of its externally funded arms, the Heritage Lottery Fund, to pick up expenditure which in the past was the government's responsibility."

The British Museum has been a major player in European intellectual history. Founded at the zenith of the Enlightenment, it played a central role in the emergence of new disciplines, notably archaeology and art history, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and has been a major mover in the shift to the present emphasis on education and accessibility in the museum world. Its attitudes to knowledge, collecting, conservation and access have been influential in the wider world. And its collections have laid the foundations of other great institutions: the British Library, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery. All this is well captured in this illuminating book, which is informed by strong personal affection for an institution that the author rightly claims to be the greatest museum in the world.

Christopher Ondaatje is a collector, writer and former financier, who has donated widely to museums and galleries. He is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

The British Museum: A History

Author - David M. Wilson
ISBN - 0 7141 64 7
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 416

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