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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St Baudime reliquary arrives at the Museum

By James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Today the installation began in earnest with the placing of one of the most significant and compelling reliquaries of the exhibition. The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. It’s normally kept in the church of St Nectaire deep in the Auvergne in the centre of France where, sadly, relatively few people have seen it.

Statue reliquary of St Baudime in the church of St Nectair, Auvergne, France

Imagine the excitement when the packing case was opened and the eyes of this exceptional figure were exposed again to the light. The eyes were designed to hold the gaze of the onlooker and still command attention today. Made of ivory, horn and wax, they are slightly mobile and move in their sockets – a miracle of medieval technology. The beautifully expressive hands were made to extend benediction and welcome. The right hand may have once held a phial of the saint’s blood. Despite its remarkable delicacy, its solid walnut core makes it extraordinarily heavy and it required concentrated effort to place it safely in its display case.

The reliquary arrives at the British Museum and is carefully removed from its crate and prepared for conservation work.

Although this reliquary of St Baudime has always remained in France and has stirred rarely from the church it was made to furnish, it has experienced its fair share of trauma. The settings for the jewels that once adorned the figure are now almost all empty, robbed of their riches at the time of the French Revolution. Later, the reliquary itself was stolen by the infamous Thomas brothers in May 1907 but was recovered in a wine cellar!

A slideshow showing every step of the installation is now online.

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

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

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Around 3 million years ago our early ancestors collected and valued objects for their appearance. This pebble was perhaps picked up by an Australopithecus africanus because its natural shape suggests a face. Objects like this identify South Africa as one of the places where modern human behaviour began.

Experts have different views on whether this found object might be the first evidence of artistic thought. What do you think – is this art?

Discover this deep history in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition – follow the link in our bio to find out more about this special exhibition.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Collected about 3 million years ago. On loan from Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 
#SouthAfrica #history #prehistory This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
#AncientEgypt #Egypt #Thebes #RosettaStone #sculpture #statue #history #BritishMuseum #mybritishmuseum We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽
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