British Museum blog

The British Museum’s 255th anniversary: from the archives

Architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft
Stephanie Alder, Archivist, British Museum

As the Museum announces record visitor figures for 2013, I took the opportunity to delve into the basement world of the Central Archive looking for any records relating to the public opening of the Museum 255 years ago today (15th January).

image of the The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive store at the British Museum

The Central Archive is a rather mysterious place. When you enter through the port-holed door the first thing you notice is the chill, and the smell of old leather bound volumes. It is very exciting to think that within this strongroom sit many important records – some still untouched – providing crucial evidence of the foundation and development of the British Museum. As the Museum Archivist it is a privilege to be able to spend time surrounded by history.

architectural plans of Montagu House by architect Henry Flitcroft

Plans of Montague House by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769)

When I initially opened a beautifully bound volume of plans of Montague House drawn by the architect Henry Flitcroft in 1725 I found it hard to believe that this was the first home of the British Museum. Until the Museum acquired the property, this grand mansion was the home of the 2nd Duke of Montagu and where many splendid social events took place during the early years of the eighteenth century. Flitcroft was careful to show every detail, even the slate roof tiles are drawn individually. Both formal and kitchen gardens are shown, as is the orchard to the west where Bedford Square now lies.

When you arrive at the Museum today and walk through the gates looking up at the colonnade in front of you, you would be excused for thinking that the Museum had always looked like this. Yet, on 15 January 1765 visitors would have walked down Great Russell Street and entered through a doorway opening leading to a brick paved courtyard. Once inside the Museum, the printed books were arranged on the ground floor, and manuscripts, natural history and ‘modern curiosities’ on the first. However, it isn’t just the architecture of the building that has dramatically changed over years – but how members of public gained access to the collections.

handwritten minutes of the British Museum Trustees

Minutes of the Trustees’ General Minutes from 7 April 1759, p. 255

When reading through the early minutes of the Trustees’ General Meetings, I came across a great number of discussions relating to public admission. The Trustees eventually decided that visits should be free, but by ticket only, applied for in advance and conducted around the collection in small groups by the staff, the first of whom were appointed in 1756. In a document titled ‘Regulations for Admission to a Sight of the British Museum’ it states that ‘five companies of not more than fifteen persons each, may be admitted in the Course of the Day, viz. One at each of the hours of Ten, Eleven, Twelve, One and Two. At each of those Hours, the directing Officer in waiting shall examine the Entries in the Book, and if none of the Persons inscribed be found exceptionable, he shall deliver to each of them a Ticket for immediate admission’. This rough figure of 75 visitors per day is a far cry from the visitor numbers recorded today.

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

The original proposed ticket for admission to view the Museum’s collections, located in the Trustees Original Papers of 1757

It was expected that visitors to the Museum ‘be decent and orderly in their Appearance and Behaviour’, and the officers on duty were instructed to refuse admission anyone who disregarded this rule. The regulations went on to explain that ‘past experience has proven the necessity of this injunction’. In addition to this no children ‘apparently under ten years of age’ were permitted entry – both quite different to the Museum today when you can wear what you like and enjoy the collections from any age. By the 1830s, the Museum was operating an open admissions policy. Visitors to the Museum’s world collection have grown enormously since it first opened its doors to the public with in excess of 6.5 million welcomed today.

Read more about the Museum’s 255th anniversary

The Central Archive of the British Museum contains the administrative records of the Museum dating back to its foundation. For more information on the collection and how to make an appointment, please contact the Archivist at centralarchive@britishmuseum.org.

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