British Museum blog

A new kind of museum: a new kind of citizen

The British Museum, June 2013Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

On this day, 260 years ago, the British Museum – as we know it – came into being: on 7 June 1753, the first British Museum Act received royal assent, and the first public national museum in the world was established.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what a revolutionary moment this was. Until that June day in 1753, collections of objects like ours were the preserve of royalty, or private gentlemen. The decision by the British Parliament to acquire and display the collection of some 80,000 objects collected by the physician Sir Hans Sloane was truly extraordinary. And it’s a point worth celebrating 260 years later.

The British Museum, June 2013

The British Museum, June 2013

Parliament was proclaiming the right of every citizen to information. Everybody was to be enabled to explore their place in the world, in a collection which embraced the whole world, free of charge. Knowledge was no longer to be the privilege of a few. And this knowledge should not be controlled by Government. So the British Museum was to be governed by independent Trustees.

The result of this new institution, it was believed, would be a new kind of citizen – free, informed and equipped for independent thought. This was what a British citizen ought to be and so Parliament called it the British Museum, the private possession of every citizen. It was the first Parliamentary institution to be called British.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection – bequeathed to the nation – led to the formation of the British Museum

These founding principles are as true today as they were over two and a half centuries ago. The Museum remains a repository of the ‘history of the world’ with objects dating from two million years ago to the present day.

The Museum has grown exponentially over that period, from 80,000 objects in the original bequest to around eight million today, covering all countries of the world throughout time. The collection continues to grow to reflect our contemporary world. It remains a collection available to a global citizenship, and they do use it. From 5,000 visitors in 1759, to around six million walking through the doors last year, not to mention around 27 million virtual visits to the Museum’s English, Chinese and Arabic websites.

Since its foundation the British Museum has witnessed the reigns of 10 monarchs, experienced five royal Jubilees, and has survived – more or less unscathed – numerous wars, revolutions and civil disturbances and financial crises. The original collection has spawned two other great institutions; the Natural History Museum and the British Library.

But what is it about the Museum collection that makes it so enduring and relevant after 260 years? For me it’s the perspective it allows on the world today. The collection is witness to the long history of human endeavour. Thus it can shed light on present-day Iran or Syria by showing their long and complex histories. Closer to home the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme reminds us of the diversity of the UK’s national identity, literally uncovering the treasures beneath our feet, the discovery of which often re-writes history – such as the Vale of York Hoard or the Hallaton helmet.

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the Hallaton helmet

Everyone has their favourite memory of the Museum or an object in the collection which is particularly resonant. I remember being brought as a child to see the Rosetta Stone. An uninspiring lump of rock to look at perhaps, about that most boring of subjects – tax – but the key to an entire civilisation and rightly one of the most famous objects in the collection.

But there are a host of other less well known treats to discover, from the Tree of Life made from decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war, to the extraordinary Mughal Jade Terrapin and the cinematic Perry scroll commemorating the moment that Japan opened up to trade with the West in the nineteenth century.

Detail from the Perry scroll

Detail from The Mission of Commodore Perry to Japan, 1854

Today the British Museum has become truly Britain’s Museum serving global citizens across the UK, something which Parliament in the eighteenth century could not have dreamed of. This map shows the extent of the Museum’s work across the country last year.

Every object seen at the Museum and further afield tells multiple stories and histories and provides insights into our complex but fascinating world. This is the power of the British Museum and it is worth celebrating.

This post was updated on 7 June to include visitor numbers for all the Museum’s websites.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title, or tweet using #BM260

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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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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