15th January 1759. British Museum.

The domed reading room of the British Museum is where Karl Marx, supported financially by his friend Engels, wrote Das Kapital with its exposition of ’Dialectical Materialism’.

‘A museum is…not at all a place of entertainment, but a place of education’ said  John Ruskin having no doubt in mind places such as the British Museum which opened today in 1759 at Montague House in London’s Bloomsbury district.

Under the heading ‘Tuttle’, Robert Nares’ Glossary of the works of English Authors (1859), described an original part of the Museum’s grounds as ‘the maze in Tothill Fields-the gymnasium of my youth’.

Nares also recalled ‘an unfrequented spot in this setting known as The Field of the Forty Steps, set aside at the back of Montague House as a place of appointment for duelists’. All this was replaced by Robert Smirke’s 1823 Greek Revival building.

The Foundation Act laid down that the Museum should have fifty-one Trustees, among them the Lord Chief Justice, the Common’s Speaker and two nominees of the Cotton Family, replaced in 1963 by Prime-Ministerial nominees.

The collection of manuscripts of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (Bart), whose collection included that donated from his friend the antiquary William Camden, was also acquired by Act of Parliament in 1700 from Cotton’s grandson Sir John.

Thus the Museum, and the Bodleian Library, became the repository of many collections dating from the 17th century including those from members of the Royal Society.

The government had approved a public lottery to raise funds for the Museum, for the purchase of the books, manuscripts and collections of virtuosi from amateurs such as Sir Hans Sloane, and for the Harleian manuscripts to be properly housed and maintained in 1753. (1)

It was the Harleian Collection of illuminated manuscripts ranging from Middle-English to the Renaissance along with the Cotton and Sloane’s Collections which formed the basis of the British Museum Library in 1973, becoming eventually the British Library.

In 1856 Richard Owen became Head of the Natural History Section of the British Museum and later the zoological and geological specimens from these departments were to form the basis of the Natural History Museum which moved from Bloomsbury to part of the site of the 1862 International Exhibition in South Kensington, opening in 1881.

Before Owen, museums were for the use of the elite for research and the scientist T.H. Huxley was a believer, like Ruskin in the serious nature of the institutions. To get into the British Museum, for instance, one had to make a written application and be interviewed.(2)

The rapidly growing library departments of the British Museum outgrew their space by the 1970s and were removed from the Museum’s control when the British Library, later joined by the Patent Office and the National Lending Libraries, with its own Board, was re-housed on the site of an old potato depot near St. Pancras.


British Museum, Bloomsbury, London.

(1) Thomas Astle of Yoxall the antiquary and paleographer was responsible for compiling an Index of the Harleian Manuscripts. His father had the sinecure of ‘Keeper’ of the Needwood Forest, Staffs.

(2) Owen was to become the driving force behind this Museum and coined the word dinosauria, ‘terrible lizard’ in 1841. However though reptilian they are not lizards.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Pic Image.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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