British Museum Opened (1759)

A 1937 George Gershwin hit song starts this way:  “A foggy day in London town, had me low, had me down; I viewed the morning with alarm, the British Museum had lost its charm.”  Perhaps the museum lost its charm for Gershwin, but the rest of the world remains enchanted.  The museum opened to the public on January 15, 1759, and amazes nearly 7 million people every year.

Main entrance to the British Museum (photoi by Ham)

The British Museum was the first national museum in the world.  It was founded in 1753, when the will of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a successful London doctor, bequeathed his collection to the British people (in exchange, actually for 20,000 British pounds).  He had begun collecting while traveling as the personal physician to the governor of Jamaica.  His main interest was natural history, and he brought back 800 species of plants and animals, many alive, from that voyage.

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum (photo by Larry Nielsen)

He never stopped collecting.  He also acquired collections of others, accumulating more than 71,000 objects, mostly natural history, during his life (the Enlightenment Gallery at the museum represents the way an 18th Century museum looked, with an overwhelming preponderance of natural specimens displayed as objects of curiosity).  His library exceeded 50,000 volumes.  His collections filled up his house in the Bloomsbury district of London, across the street from the current site of the library, and then the house next door.  He eventually had to move to the Chelsea district to find a home with sufficient space (his home was on the square that now bears his name).

From the beginning, the museum was free and open to the public, a service to “all studious and curious Persons.” Its doors have remained open since then, except during the two world wars in the 20th Century. About 5,000 people visited the museum in 1759; nearly 7 million now visit each year, making it the most popular attraction in the United Kingdom.

Display of mollusk shells, British Museum (photo by Larry Nielsen)

But that tells just part of the story.  As the museum became more and more popular in the late 1800s, and as the collections continued to grow and diversify, the facilities became overly crowded.  Consequently, a new building was constructed in the South Kensington district of London to house the natural history collections.  That building opened in the 1880s, splitting the attendance between the sites.  Now run as the independent Natural History Museum (read more), it attracted about 4.6 million visits in 2016.   The British Library, which was part of the museum until 1973, also attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.  In all, then, nearly 13 million people visit the British Museum and its offspring every year.

The British Museum itself is now primarily a cultural and archeological museum, known for outstanding exhibits including the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon friezes (which may be on their way back to Athens).  But its role as the conservator of the natural history of the world during the age of exploration helped shape our understanding of natural selection, evolution, biodiversity, ecology and conservation.  It will never lose its charm.

References:

British Museum.  The Museum’s story—General History.  Available at:  http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/the_museums_story/general_history/sir_hans_sloane.aspx.  Accessed January 15, 2018

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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