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

Filed under: At the Museum, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,941 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,941 other followers

%d bloggers like this: