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Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury Institutions


British Museum

No other names, but formerly incorporating collections which have since become separate as the Natural History Museum (South Kensington) and the British Library


It was founded in 1753 on the death of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), the greatest private collector of his age, who lived in Bloomsbury Place at the eastern end of Great Russell Street

Here he had a private museum of his botanical, geological, and anatomical specimens, many collected in the West Indies

Sloane, who died in the manor house in Chelsea to which he had retired, left instructions in his will that his great collection of specimens and books should be offered for sale to the king to buy for the nation, stipulating that it should be “kept and preserved together whole and intire”

It should be “visited and seen by all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same”, and “rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons” (David M. Wilson, The British Museum: A History, 2002)

In the event Parliament decided to raise the money to buy the collection for the nation by means of a lottery

The 1753 Act to incorporate the British Museum, passed on 7 June 1753, stated that “one general repository shall be erected” for “public use to all posterity” with “free access” to “all studious and curious Persons”

It was governed by a Board of Trustees, most of them appointed on account of their offices of state

The three Principal Trustees were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, and the Speaker of the House of Commons

A further fifteen were official appointments, including the Bishop of London, the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and the Presidents of the Royal Society and the College of Physicians

Two members were nominated by the Sloane family and two each by the Harley and Cotton families, since Parliament had added to the Sloane material by acquiring the manuscript collections of the Earls of Oxford (Harleys) and those left to the nation in 1700 by Sir Robert Cotton

Fifteen further Trustees were elected by the official members; at first these were usually aristocrats in public positions, but as the nineteenth century progressed, and the British Museum came under increasing scrutiny, Trustees began to be elected because of their contributions to literature and science

Sloane’s house in Chelsea was considered too far from central London to be suitable for the collection; Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace) was offered, but was too expensive; Montagu House on Great Russell Street, owned by the Earl of Halifax, was bought for just over £10,000 and adapted for use as a museum (J. Mordaunt Crook, The British Museum, 1972)

The Museum opened in January 1759; although under the terms of Sloane’s will and the Act of Parliament access to the Museum was free and open to all, and though it was certainly more accessible than any other European museum at the time, in practice there were several restrictions

The Museum was not open at weekends or outside working hours during the week, thus denying access to ordinary working people

Visitors had to apply for an entry ticket, a process which could take weeks; when they did gain access, they were rushed through the galleries by guides

In 1810 the rules were changed: guided tours were stopped and people could walk round at their own pace and stay as long as they liked

But not until 1879 was the Museum opened from Monday to Saturday, and Sunday opening was delayed until 1896, after much opposition from Museum employees and Trustees and from Sunday observance societies (David M. Wilson, The British Museum: A History, 2002)

Unlike most European institutions, the British Museum combined a national collection of books and manuscripts with collections of antiquities, prints and drawings, medals and coins, maps, and natural history specimens

As a consequence it was calle variously a “noble cabinet”, in the first published guide to the collections (1761); a “mishmash” and jumble, by several visitors from abroad during the 1810s and 1820s; and an “old curiosity shop”, by the Museum’s scourge in Parliament in the mid-1830s, the radical MP William Cobbett, who attacked it as a place of lazy sinecurists and upper-class “loungers”, rather than the institution open to all classes that it should be (Hansard, 25 March 1833; J. Mordaunt Crook, The British Museum, 1972)

As collections were added, the Museum soon became chronically short of space

It also had to battle for annual grants from an often parsimonious Parliament in order to fund the building plans and the extra employees required to cope with new accessions such as the Elgin Marbles (1815) and the huge increase in books coming to the library after the Trustees agreed to let the energetic Keeper of Printed Books, Anthony Panizzi (1797–1879), enforce the 1842 Copyright Act requiring British publishers to deposit a copy of every book they published in the Museum’s library

The Museum’s history in the nineteenth century was therefore one of constant debate about expansion and expense, and in particular about whether to split up the collections and move the natural history collection out of Bloomsbury, which finally happened, after nearly thirty years of negotiation, in the early 1880s, when the new Natural History Museum opened in South Kensington

In 1861, twenty years before the collection opened in South Kensington, Punch had commented on the plan for it to leave Bloomsbury:

Mother Nature, beat retreat,
Out, M’m, from Great Russell Street!
Here, in future, folks shall scan
Nothing but the works of Man.

(quoted in Marjorie Caygill and Christopher Date, Building the British Museum, 1999)

Opposition to moving the natural history collection out of the Museum was based on its popularity with visitors; a survey done over fifteen days in June–July 1860 showed that in that time there were 3,378 visitors to the Natural History Galleries, 2,557 to Antiquities, and 1,056 to the King’s Library and Reading Rooms

The House of Commons Select Committee which ordered the survey reported also that “removal of these most popular collections from their present central position to one less generally accessible would excite much dissatisfaction”, particularly among those who lived outside London, “to whom the proximity of the British Museum to most of the railway termini” (Euston, St Pancras, and King’s Cross) was “of great practical importance” (Edward Edwards, Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, 2 vols, 1870)

In the end, the move to South Kensington became inevitable for a number of reasons:

Problems of space increased as the century went on, but the cost of buying up houses in the immediate area of the Museum was often more than Parliament would sanction

Panizzi, promoted in 1856 to Principal Librarian, was keen to be rid of the natural history collections in order to make more space for the library

Professor Richard Owen, appointed as Superintendent of the Natural History Departments in 1856, came to the conclusion that his collections could only be seen to advantage in a separate new building

After much argument within the Museum departments and in Parliament, the new Natural History Museum opened in South Kensington in 1881 (David M. Wilson, The British Museum: A History, 2002)

Panizzi did not live long enough to see the final removal of the collections from Bloomsbury to South Kensington

In the twentieth century it was decided by the British Library Act of 1973 to move the Library out of the Museum to its new purpose-built home next to St Pancras, which opened in 1998

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, efforts had been made to keep everything together by expanding the Bloomsbury site itself in all directions

The architect Robert Smirke (1780–1867) was hired to build a much-enlarged Museum around the old one, with Montagu House’s demolition forming the last part of the process

The rebuilding started in 1823, when Smirke began to build an east wing to house the King’s Library, the magnificent book collection of George III offered to the Museum by George IV

It finished in the late 1840s, by which time Smirke had retired from ill health and passed on the completion of the work to his much younger brother Sydney Smirke (1798–1877)

Government grants for the rebuilding totalled £606,500 19s 5d from Michaelmas 1823 to Christmas 1846; the estimated cost of completing the building during 1847 and 1848 was a further £106,911 0s 7d (British Museum Accounts, 16 March 1847, in Printed Papers etc. concerning the British Museum 1753-1851, British Museum Central Archive)

Sales of old building materials were held at the Museum, including one on 7 August 1845 consisting of “the external materials and interior fittings of the east side of the Front Court of the old British Museum, comprising several tons of lead in gutters, ridges, and flushings, dormers, cisterns & pipes, slated roofs, sound timber in roofs…, also a large quantity of sound brickwork” (Catalogue, in Original Letters and Papers, vol. XXXIII, British Museum Central Archive)

Charles Knight reported in his Cyclopaedia of London in 1851 that the hoarding still surrounding the front courtyard was due to be removed in the summer or autumn of that year, when elegant front railings would complete the work begun nearly thirty years before

In 1823 Montagu House and its garden to the north occupied a rectangular piece of land with only one proper opening, on Great Russell Street; it was surrounded to the west, north, and east by houses on the Bedford Estate

Smirke left an open quadrangle in the middle of his neo-Grecian building, intending it for a garden

In practice the space was damp and dark, and when Panizzi was faced with finding more space for the cramped reading rooms, he sketched a plan in April 1852 to fill the middle quadrangle with a large round reading room surrounded by iron bookstacks

This became the famous Round Reading Room, opened in May 1857

Francis Russell, the fifth Duke of Bedford, had let it be known in 1799 that he was planning to develop his lands to the north of Great Russell Street by granting building leases, and the Museum was offered the opportunity of buying some of this land for its future expansion

Unfortunately the Trustees had refused the offer, fearing they could not afford it, though they did manage to keep a right of way, a footpath leading north through fields to a gate in Montague Place, which became the main route to the Museum’s reading rooms, running between the houses which were now built along Montague Place

Negotiations to buy up land and old houses along Great Russell Street between Smirke on behalf of the Museum Trustees and the Bedford Estate manager Christopher Haedy acting for John Russell, sixth Duke of Bedford, were protracted and sometimes combative during the 1820s and 1830s

The Museum’s solicitors, Bray, Warren, and Harding of Great Russell Street, were kept busy by petitions from the Duke of Bedford’s tenants occupying houses on the south side of Montague Place, whose gardens were to be overlooked by Smirke’s new buildings in the gardens of the old Montagu House

In 1823 the Duke of Bedford took the Trustees to court on the grounds that the buildings planned by Smirke would breach the agreement, entered into when Montagu House was first purchased, not to build permanent structures in the garden; he lost the case because the Trustees argued successfully that the Bedford Estate had itself compromised the area with its building leases dating from 1800 (David M. Wilson, The British Museum: A History, 2002)

A memorial was sent to the Trustees in May 1826 by ten owners and occupiers of houses on the south side of Montague Place, politely explaining “how materially our comfort as occupiers, & our interest as owners would be lessened by having a large solid building placed immediately behind our houses. We trust that nothing but a real necessity of sacrificing our comfort & interest to the public good will induce you to allow such a building to be erected” (Original Letters and Papers, vol. VI, British Museum Central Archive)

The Trustees took protracted legal advice on the right of access and use of light in these circumstances

In 1833 a meeting of Trustees was told that in the opinion of the Attorney General and Solicitor General (both ex officio Trustees) “the proposed Building could not be considered an obstruction either of light or air to the houses in Montague Place, and that if the inhabitants of the houses were to take any proceedings in law against the Trustees to prevent them from building such proceedings would fail” (Committee Minutes, vol. XIII, 8 June 1833, British Museum Central Archive)

From 1836 to 1845 the Museum negotiated with the Bedford Estate for houses to the east and west of the Museum, including the Bedford Estate Office, which was situated to the east of the Museum, in the angle between Great Russell Street and Montague Street (Original Letters and Papers, vols XV, XXI, XXIV, passim, and General Meetings Minutes, vols VI, VII, passim, British Museum Central Archive)

In 1895 the Museum finally acquired another sixty-nine Bedford Estate houses in the surrounding streets, paying Herbrand Russell, the eleventh Duke of Bedford, over £200,000 for them (Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum, 1973)

John James Burnet was commissioned to build on the newly acquired land, and the Edward VII Galleries he built along Montague Place were opened in May 1914

Burnet’s plan of 1905 included “British Museum Avenue” leading north from the new building on Montague Place to meet and be continued by Torrington Square, but as so often before, there was not enough money to carry this out and the new Avenue was finally blocked in 1936 by the University of London’s Senate House building, designed by Charles Holden (J. Mordaunt Crook, The British Museum, 1972; Eliza Jeffries Davis, The University Site, Bloomsbury, 1936)

Burnet’s plan for the area north of the Museum mirrored an earlier unfulfilled plan by the architect John Nash, who in 1825, as part of his Trafalgar Square development, had sketched out an avenue leading south from the British Museum to Charing Cross, a road which would have offered a front view of Smirke’s neo-classical new British Museum building from a distance (J. Mordaunt Crook, The British Museum, 1972)

In 1872 Robert Cowtan, an assistant in the British Museum Library, wrote about yet another project to improve both the view of the Museum and the reputation of the cluster of dingy streets lying just south of Great Russell Street and known as the St Giles’s Rookery until New Oxford Street was cut through the worst of them in 1847:

“Should the project ever be carried out of opening a wide street, with first-class shops, from the British Museum through Drury Lane to Somerset House, both of these fine buildings would be seen to greater advantage, and a noble street would be formed in the place of one of the worst neighbourhoods of London”
(Robert Cowtan, Memories of the British Museum, 1872)

None of these plans came to fruition, and consequently the British Museum remains to this day hemmed in by houses to the south


The first pressure for reform came at the same time as, and was not unconnected with, the reform movement generally in the 1820s which culminated in the removal of Catholic Disabilities in 1829 and the extension of the franchise brought in by the hard-fought Reform Act of 1832

Members of Parliament aired their views about the unsatisfactoriness of the British Museum when they were asked to vote on the Museum’s annual grant in the early years of Smirke’s rebuilding

In a debate on 1 July 1823, for example, MPs complained that the Museum was “a piece of patchwork” (the radical Whig John Cam Hobhouse), and “a most jumbling and incongruous arrangement” of antiquities, books, natural history, and marbles” (Alexander Baring; Hansard, 1 July 1823)

The following year Grey Bennet quoted an article in the Whig Edinburgh Review which attacked the neglect of Sir Hans Sloane’s huge collection of birds, beasts, and insects, and of his great herbarium, many of its volumes now “covered with dust and penetrated by worms” (Hansard, 29 March 1824)

Bennet blamed the Trustees for mismanagement: “He objected to making trustees ex officio – trustees of straw – trustees merely for the sake of their names. The lord chancellor was a trustee, and had never been in the museum, he understood, but once; and then only because some matter of form compelled him to go. Now such trustees were useless. Men of activity were wanted” (Hansard, 29 March 1824)

Writers to The Times were indignant at the short and inconvenient opening times for the reading rooms and the difficulty of acquiring a ticket if you did not know a Trustee to recommend you; one letter published on 10 October 1823 complained that the rooms “of this great establishment are hermetically sealed against the majority of those who would wish to frequent them for scientific purposes” (The Times, 10 October 1823)

While many observers realised that some of the attacks on the British Museum were unfair, since its collections were constantly increasing but there was no room to display them and not enough money to make proper provision, some objected to its getting public money at all

In March 1833 the recently elected radical MP for Oldham, William Cobbett, attracted wide attention by asking “of what use, in the wide world, was this British Museum, and to whom, to what class of persons, it was useful?” “The ploughmen and the weavers – the shopkeepers and the farmers – never went near it; they paid for it though, whilst the idle loungers enjoyed it, and paid scarcely anything… If the aristocracy wanted the Museum as a lounging place, let them pay for it” (Hansard, 25 March 1833)

A week later Cobbett, supported by the rich manufacturer James Morrison, pointed out that the Museum was open only three days a week and only from 10am till 4pm, when working people of all classes were at work (Hansard, 1 April 1833)

Reforms were eventually begun when, bowing to such pressure, the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee in 1835 to investigate the organisation of the Museum

The Committee interviewed the leading figures, including the amiable but complacent Sir Henry Ellis, Principal Librarian since 1827, who defended the tradition of electing Trustees from the ranks of the aristocracy rather than from among scientists and men of letters: “I look to the benefit of the Museum, not to the general benefit of science...it never entered into the contemplation of the trustees to select poets and historians” (Select Committee Minutes, 1835, quoted in Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum, 1973)

As for having longer opening hours, to the reasonable reply that the staff was not large enough to manage and there would therefore be an extra expense if the hours were extended, Ellis added that it would not be a good thing since “the more vulgar class would crowd into the Museum” (Select Committee Minutes, 1835, quoted in Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum, 1973)

A further Committee sat in 1836, its report recommending certain changes

Among the recommendations were that officers in the Museum should be better paid but should not hold second jobs outside the Museum, that opening hours should be extended to 7pm during the summer months, that Trustees who seldom or never attended meetings should be encouraged to resign, and that men of distinction should be elected in their place (Select Committee Report, 14 July 1836, Printed Papers etc. concerning the British Museum 1753–1851, British Museum Central Archive)

The first man of learning to be elected a Trustee was the historian Henry Hallam in 1837; like the man who was elected in his place on his death in 1859, the historian of Greece George Grote, Hallam was a reformer who supported the foundation of the secular University of London (later University College London) in 1826 and sat on its Council

Another historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, was elected a Trustee in 1847, and in 1888 the scientist and champion of Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, was elected

The fifteen elected members of the Board were still, however, heavily weighted towards the aristocracy and serving politicians and ministers throughout the nineteenth century (see annual Statutes and Rules of the British Museum, and Indexes to the Standing Committees, General Meetings, and Sub-Committees, British Museum Central Archive)

Pressure to open at hours convenient to the majority of the population continued throughout the 1840s and 1850s

Punch, established in 1841, had the Museum in its sights straight away: in ‘Punch’s Strangers’ Guide to the Metropolis’ the readers were directed to go to the British Museum, “which, when you get there, you will of course find closed”, though as consolation they would be able to read a synopsis of its contents in a neighbouring pub (Punch, vol. II, 1842)

When in March 1855 Sir Joshua Walmsley proposed Sunday opening for the British Museum and National Gallery in order to “promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the Working Classes of this Metropolis”, he was defeated in the House of Commons by 235 votes to 48 (Hansard, 20 March 1855)

Charles Dickens, long an advocate of Sunday opening of shops and museums, describes a gloomy Sunday evening in London in chapter 3 of Little Dorrit (1855–1857), when there was “no relief to an overworked people”, no plants, animals, or pictures available for them to visit

Punch also returns to the theme, mockingly congratulating the working people of Britain by comparison with their French brethren: “How much happier you are than the French! They have no kind Peers and Members of the House of Commons to restrain them from committing spiritual suicide by walking over the Louvre on a Sunday” (Punch, vol. XXIX, 18 August 1855)

The National Sunday League, founded in 1856, petitioned the Museum with a memorial dated 18 July 1857, making the case for Sunday opening for working men and their families; the Museum referred the petitioners to the need for Parliament to decide (Memorial from the National Sunday League on the Sunday opening of the British Museum, 18 July 1857)

After becoming a Trustee of the Museum in 1859, George Grote moved at several meetings in 1861 that the Museum open on Sunday afternoons, but was defeated on each occasion (Committee Minutes, 9 February and 9 March 1861, vol. XXIX; General Meeting Minutes, 13 July 1861, vol. VIII, British Museum Central Archive)

It was not until March 1896 that a motion was passed in the House of Commons to allow the galleries and museums to open on Sundays after 2 pm (Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum, 1973)

The chief reforming figure inside the Museum was Antonio Panizzi, the Italian political refugee who came to England in 1823, was appointed first Professor of Italian in the new University of London (later University College London) in 1828, and took British citizenship (anglicizing his name to Anthony) in 1832

Panizzi took up the post of Extra Assistant Librarian at the British Museum in 1831, was promoted to Keeper of Printed Books in 1837, and to Principal Librarian in 1856

Distrusted as a foreigner and political refugee, resented for his decisiveness and forthrightness, sometimes even rudeness, when responding to complaining readers, uncomprehending Trustees, and jealous colleagues inside the Museum, Panizzi was a whirlwind of energy and ideas

During his thirty-five years in the Museum, Panizzi worked at the Herculean task of producing a catalogue of printed books, devised the system of printed request slips for books, lobbied the Trustees tirelessly for more money to buy books, gave full and frank accounts to the various parliamentary committees of inquiry, and aggressively pursued publishers who were in breach of the 1842 Copyright Act by failing to submit a copy of every book they published to the Museum

He also devised and oversaw the building of the great Round Reading Room, which opened in May 1857, having evolved from a sketch he first produced in April 1852 to make use of the wasted space in the empty inner quadrangle of the Museum (Edward Miller, Prince of Librarians: The Life and Times of Antonio Panizzi of the British Museum, 1988)

Though the British Museum was in many ways slow to respond to changing times, it was not unaffected by the rise of an intellectual, academic community in its immediate neighbourhood

When the new University of London (later University College London) opened in 1828 (in a neo-classical building not unlike that which Smirke was in the process of building round the old Montagu House), its officers approached the Museum to ask for permission for its students to read in the British Museum library, and in May 1830 the Warden of the University, Leonard Horner, sent a copy of the University’s prize medal to the Secretary of the Museum, the Rev. Josiah Forshall (College Correspondence 1830, UCL Special Collections)

From 1831 to 1837 the two institutions shared Panizzi, whose classes in Italian at the University failed to attract more than five to eight students in the first few years and who therefore needed to supplement his income, though he resigned his chair on becoming Keeper of Printed Books in 1837

They also shared Frederick (Friedrich August) Rosen, a brilliant young German orientalist who was appointed to the Chair of Sanskrit at the University of London in 1828, to which he soon added Arabic, Persian, and Hindustani

Like Panizzi, he had hardly any students, and in May 1834 he was engaged by the British Museum “to assist in revising and correcting the Catalogue of the Syriac MSS, his remuneration to be 20/- for one day’s service in each week” (Committee Minutes, 10 May 1834, vol. XIII, British Museum Central Archive)

From April 1835 Rosen was employed on the catalogue three days a week (Committee Minutes, 11 April 1835, vol. XIV, British Museum Central Archive)

He died in 1837, aged thirty-two, and the Museum commissioned the sculptor Richard Westmacott to make a bust of him “that the same might be preserved in the British Museum in memory of the worth, services and learning of that much to be lamented gentleman” (Committee Minutes, 20 April 1839, vol. XVII, British Museum Central Archive)

A copy of the catalogue of Syriac manuscripts, on its completion in 1839, was ordered by the Trustees to be sent to Rosen’s father in Germany (Committee Minutes, 22 January 1839, vol. XVII, British Museum Central Archive)

Other Professors at University College London who had connections with the British Museum were William Benjamin Carpenter and Robert Grant, both of whom were appointed by the Trustees as Swiney lecturers under the provision of the £5,000 Swiney Fund

The fund was bequeathed to the Museum by the will of Dr George Swiney, an eccentric doctor and benefactor, who died in 1844

The will stipulated that the lectures should be on geology and the appointed lecturers should have graduated MD at Edinburgh, as Swiney himself had done

Carpenter was appointed the first Swiney Lecturer by the Trustees; he lectured for five years, first at the Royal Institution, and in 1851–1852 at the Russell Institution in Great Coram Street

Grant followed Carpenter, lecturing from 1852–1853 to 1856–1857, delivering his first series from January to March 1853 at University College, and his subsequent series at the Russell Institution in Great Coram Street

One member of his audience at University College in January 1853 was Panizzi’s great rival inside the British Museum, the Keeper of Manuscripts Sir Frederic Madden

Madden’s diary for 4 January 1853 noted that this was the first time he had been inside University College; he also noted that Grant was not a good lecturer, reading his lecture in a “weak and indistinct” voice to an audience of only about twenty people (copy of Madden Diary, British Museum Central Archive; the original is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Madden visited University College again in May 1853, to see the Flaxman Gallery:

“The casts are well placed, and well worth a visit… We concluded our visit by a peep at Jeremy Bentham’s bones, clad as when alive, and locked up in a mahogany press. I was not struck with his physiognomy, which is modelled in wax, and placed on the skeleton. His MSS. Papers which were offered to the Museum, and refused, at my request, are now consigned to some garret in rooms above his bones, seldom or never to be disturbed! I do not envy the man who should attempt to catalogue them!” (31 May 1853, copy of Madden Diary, British Museum Central Archive)

Bentham’s papers had been offered to the Museum by his friend and disciple John Bowring in January 1849

The Trustees, on Madden’s advice, instructed the Secretary “courteously to decline the acceptance of these papers” (Committee Minutes, 13 January 1849, vol. XXIV, British Museum Central Archive)

Thereupon the Trustees were promptly asked by Bowring’s son to redirect the papers to University College London, where they were graciously accepted by the Secretary Charles C. Atkinson (C. A. Bowring to Rev. J. Forshall, 19 January 1849; Charles C. Atkinson to Rev. J. Forshall, 20 January 1849, Original Letter and Papers, vol. XLI, British Museum Central Archive)

Madden’s mock shudder of sympathy for the future cataloguer of the Bentham manuscripts was prescient; the manuscripts, housed in UCL’s Special Collections, were not properly surveyed until A. Taylor Milne compiled the Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham in the Library of University College London (1937)

The individual manuscripts were finally catalogued in detail for a Bentham Project database in 2003–2006 by Deborah Colville (née McVea), subsequently Research Associate of the Bloomsbury Project; this database is available online via the Bentham Papers database (opens in new window)

An indirect index of relations between the two largest educational and cultural institutions in nineteenth-century Bloomsbury, the British Museum and University College London, is to be found in the records of readers’ admissions to the Museum’s library in the first years of the new University’s existence

Between 1827, when the first appointments of Professors at the University were made in anticipation of its opening for business in October 1828, and 1831, a significant number of University appointees were issued with readers’ tickets

These included Augustus De Morgan, first Professor of Mathematics (issued with a ticket on 21 March 1827); John Gordon Smith, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence (11 July 1827); Rev. Dionysius Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy (3 October 1827); Rev. John Hoppus, Professor of Philosophy (22 November 1827); Don Antonio Galiano, Professor of Spanish (21 February 1828); Frederick (Friedrich August) Rosen, Professor of Oriental Languages (15 May 1828); Robert Grant, Professor of Zoology (17 July 1828); Antonio Panizzi, Professor of Italian (5 December 1828); John Elliotson, Professor of the Theory and Practice of Eedicine (27 July 1831); John Ramsay McCulloch, Professor of Political Economy (9 August 1831); Henry Malden, Professor of Greek (18 November 1831; Admissions to Reading Room, British Museum Central Archive)

Many of these new Professors had Bloomsbury addresses, as did most of the officers of the British Museum, with the top eight employees occupying residences within the Museum itself, and the others instructed after the Select Committee report of 1836 to live within a mile of the Museum (Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum, 1973)

Several personal and professional connections between individuals associated with the two institutions may therefore be traced

It continues to be one of the world’s greatest museums

It attracts vistors from Bloomsbury, London, and the wider world to its collections

In July 2009, another planned extension was surprisingly refused planning permission by Camden Council

Its separate collections have proved equally successful: ; the Natural History Museum in South Kensington has one of the largest collections of specimens, and the British Library on Euston Road is one of the great libraries of the world

What was reforming about it?

It was the first public national museum in Britain

In practice, it remained a closed book to the bulk of the population until, following an interest in the acquisition of famous collections like the Elgin Marbles in 1815 and the decision to enlarge and rebuild it in the early 1820s, agitation became loud in Parliament and the press to have an investigation of its practices and to make it the institution of free access to all that had been intended at its founding

Its nineteenth-century expansion ultimately saw it become much more accessible to students and members of the working classes

Where in Bloomsbury

The Museum was opened in Montagu House in Great Russell Street in 1759

It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building on the same site, where it remains

The extensive natural history collections were judged important enough to form a museum in their own right in the 1870s, following a campaign from 1859 led by their Superintendent, Richard Owen; they were moved to the purpose-built Natural History Museum in South Kensington in 1881 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), and the books similarly left for their own purpose-built home, the British Library on Euston Road, in 1997

Before the development of the part of Bloomsbury lying to the north and east of Great Russell Street began in 1800, the Museum was one of only two great institutions in the area; the other was the Foundling Museum, whose estate was also being developed from the 1790s

These two institutions became, in the course of the nineteenth century, surrounded by streets, squares, houses, and in due course a number of new institutions, many of them reforming and educational

Website of current institution

www.britishmuseum.org (opens in new window)

Books about it

Edward Edwards, Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, 2 vols (1870)

Robert Cowtan, Memories of the British Museum (1872)

J. Mordaunt Crook, The British Museum (1972)

Edward Miller, That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum (1973)

P. R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library 1753–1973 (1998)

Marjorie Caygill and Christopher Date, Building the British Museum (1999)

David M. Wilson, The British Museum: A History (2002)


The Museum’s archives are kept on site in the Central Archive; details are available online via the Museum’s website (opens in new window)

The archives contain administrative records of the Museum from 1753, including an Index to the minutes of meetings; minutes of the Committee Meetings of Trustees; minutes of the General Committee; minutes of the Sub-Committees; Officers’ Reports; Original Papers and Letters addressed to the Trustees; financial records and annual statements; and registers of readers’ admissions

Some administrative and building history records are held in the National Archives

This page last modified 14 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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