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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Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the British Museum: film, technology and magic


Matthew Cock, British Museum

I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper (A Hitch in time) about Rescue the Hitchcock 9, a major campaign by the BFI to restore all nine surviving silent films by one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. It drew my attention because one of these is Blackmail (1929) whose climactic chase sequence was shot at the British Museum.

With three of the films, including Blackmail, the BFI have the original ‘camera negative’ – the very film that passed through Hitchcock’s camera. These, according to the Guardian, will be “fed through a digital scanner, copied using a cold light source, with each of the 100,000 odd frames given a unique number. Once in the digital realm, stored as images of 4096×3112 pixels (about double the current release-print standard), the films are subjected to careful cleaning and minute analysis for colour balance”.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

My first reaction was to wonder what the restored film would reveal of the interior of the Museum 82 years ago. I did a few searches online to see if I could find out more about the scenes, and soon discovered that Hitchcock’s filming of the British Museum wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Because the chase sequence wasn’t actually filmed on location at the Museum – it was filmed at Elstree Studios using a process invented by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and refined while he was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, completed only two years earlier.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Hitchcock talked about the filming in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich for his book The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, and explains the process.
Bogdanovich asked him:

“Was the chase through the British Museum shot there?”

“No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schüfftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, “All right, bring back the Schufftan.” I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.”

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

It’s wonderful to discover that Hitchcock used the latest special effects technology (replaced by matte shots and ultimately CGI and blue screen) to conjure up a virtual image of the vast and solid British Museum in a studio 14 miles away, to trick not only the viewer, but even the studio heads who funded the film.

Today the film conservators at the BFI, while using digital techniques to enhance the original images, in these sequences of Blackmail they are not revealing the real world, but in part the magic alchemical trick that is photography and film – where for a brief moment a virtual world was conjured up before the lens, using the same materials – glass lens, silver (on mirrors and as the basis of photographic film) and the creative vision of the maker.

This post is the result of some recent research I’ve done into films shot at the British Museum, which has resulted in a Wikipedia entry on the subject and a playlist on the British Museum’s YouTube channel. Neither is comprehensive, and I’d welcome any contributions to either of them.

Do support the BFI in the project and make a donation to Rescue the Hitchcock 9.

If you are a broadcaster or film-maker interested in the British Museum as a location, please contact the Museum’s Broadcast Unit.

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