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Why 15 January?

The British Museum was founded in 1753 on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects to the nation. After the British Museum Act gained royal assent in June 1753, it officially became the first national public museum in the world. It boasted a collection featuring:

  • 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’
  • 5,447 insects
  • a herbarium (that’s a collection of dried plants)
  • 23,000 coins and medals
  • 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts
Left: Sir Hans Sloane's specimen tray. © Natural History Museum. Centre: The Sloane astrolabe. Right: a selection of shoes collected by Sloane.

Left: Sir Hans Sloane’s specimen tray. © Natural History Museum. Centre: The Sloane astrolabe (an astronomical instrument). Right: a selection of shoes collected by Sloane.

As you can imagine, this took up a lot of space – so where would this cabinet of curiosities be displayed?

From the beginning, the Museum was run by a board of trustees, who appointed a Principal Librarian to conduct the day-to-day running of the institution (now known as the Director). After rejecting Buckingham House (later the site of Buckingham Palace) on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location(!), they decided to purchase Montague House on Great Russell Street for £20,000 (around £2 million in today’s money). On 15 January 1759, the converted stately home opened its doors for the first time, and the British Museum as a public attraction was born.

Sutton Nicholls (fl. 1689–1729), Montague House. Etching and engraving, 1728.

Sutton Nicholls (fl. 1689–1729), Montague House. Etching and engraving, 1728.

The Museum hasn’t always celebrated 15 January. A headline in the New York Times of January 1959 stated flatly (and perhaps with some disdain) that ‘LONDON IGNORES AN ANNIVERSARY’. Conversely, in 2014 the Museum featured in a Google Doodle in the UK for the 255th anniversary. In 2017, we’re launching this new blog – a hub for all sorts of digital content – where you can explore the stories of the Museum, from objects and the people who made them, to the Museum’s own history, and the people who work here.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the Museum today, explains a bit about the Museum – past, present and future – in this short video.

Sir Richard Lambert, current Chair of the Trustees of the British Museum, has said that when you become a trustee, you are reminded that you are responsible for holding in trust for the nation and the world a collection unlike any other. Most of the beneficiaries of this trust are yet to be born. The Museum thus has a uniquely long-term view about things. As such, this blog is part of an ongoing story – a new chapter, if you will. Let’s hope that future generations will read on with interest…