The mother of museums, but not the oldest, founded in 1753 during period of Enlightenment. World famous, controversial, imperial, and a tourist magnetic. Famed for its library and antiquities, the legacy of the vast sprawl of the British Empire. The objects in the British Museum embody knowledge from which both public and scholars might learn, and perhaps the origins of curatorship in the modern sense.
The collection began with naturalist Sir Hans Sloane bringing back the Natural History of the West Indies in the form of ‘rarities’, 80,000 of them, plus 40,000 books and manuscripts, 20,000 coins and medals. George II gave Royal Assent to the Act of Parliament in 1753 for the founding of the museum in order to promote order and tolerance following the panic instigated by the Jacobean rebellion. So this isn’t a museum founded on a royal collection or the church; it was open to the public from the outset. The world’s first “free” museum. Tickets were still needed as entry was restricted, and consequently the museum was only available to the well-connected. From 1830s onwards it was truly free and accessible. Over 260 years, 8 million objects have been collected.
Some notables include in 1802 – following the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt – the Rosetta stone, plus mummies, and in 1816, the Greek Elgin marbles.
The original building, the old Montagu House, was demolished in 1823 and work began on Robert Smike’s Greek revival building to house the King’s Library, on the ground floor, and continued on as the largest building site in Euruope, including the Round Reading Room (1857) with its iconic dome. The last major rejuvenation happened with the Queen Elizabeth Great court opening in 2000.
The British museum exemplifies the traditional. A building housing artefacts and objects, thereby explaining their origins and history, and value is given based on the finds themselves. But what of the opposite, where the everyday objects are returned to their original state and used? The living museum using restored objects?
Beamish open-air museum in northern England is one example of this type of restoration. Opened in 1972, it is an educational resource, like any other museum, but it entertains above all else. Inspired by Scandinavian folk museums, Beamish keeps alive the traditional industries of the industrial revolution. Covering 350 acres you can walk the streets of a town, visit stores, a pub and furnished houses, there’s a sweet shop and bank, railway station and tramway, a fairground, colliery and school. The collections are presented in situ, with interpreters. It’s a fun place to take the family, especially on a fine day.
So which is best? – a museum of objects in cabinets or a living museum? Both educate, but perhaps the former is dry and uninspiring, while the latter can only house artefacts that can bear the elements and constant changes environment. Both surely, as it depends on the fragility and age of the objects, and there is value in rarity if an object is the only one of its kind – hands off kids! So lets celebrate both.
Which would you prefer to visit?