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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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
#repost #regram
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum
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