British Museum Architecture Essay

CHAPTER XIII - Natural History Museum

In 1858 the zoological, botanical, geological and mineralogical collections of the British Museum were kept at Bloomsbury with the collections of antiquities, books and manuscripts. In July of that year the most eminent British naturalists signed a memorial to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli. This proclaimed that 'as the chief end and aim of natural history is to demonstrate the harmony which pervades the whole, and the unity of principle, which bespeaks the unity of the Creative Cause, it is essential that the different classes of natural objects should be preserved in juxtaposition under the roof of one great building'. Their immediate purpose was to avert the dispersion of the collections, or even their removal from Bloomsbury, where easy access to the great library was highly valued. (fn. 8) But the congestion of the museum imperatively demanded relief, and when it became apparent that the Conservative Government was unlikely to authorize the further enlargement or reconstruction of the newly expanded building the entire removal of the natural history collections was an attractive alternative. (fn. 9) The construction of 'one great building' on a new site was to take nearly a quarter of a century. Accidental causes were, however, responsible for much of the delay, and the enterprise was sustained by the ardour of Victorian polemic, the boldness of Victorian exploration and the zest of Victorian curiosity. It was by no means immune from official economizing, but it did not suffer so profoundly from governmental indifference as did scientific collections less relevant to current controversies or less appealing to the popular capacity for wonderment. The museum eventually raised in 1873–81 was very big and expensive, symmetrical and consistent in its main aspect, and the work virtually throughout of the architect commissioned to execute it. Yet Alfred Waterhouse's building was intended merely as part of a larger whole that alone would have matched the first aspirations of its chief instigator.

This was (Sir) Richard Owen (1804–92), whose voice can probably be heard in the memorial of 1858. In 1856 he had moved to Bloomsbury from his post as professor of comparative anatomy at the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, to become superintendent of the natural history departments. He was to retain this position until the new museum was opened. Its completion owed much to his vigour, but the attendant difficulties also owed something to his combativeness. (For this chapter see plans b,c,d between pages 54–5, and Plates 60–65, 66a,b,c.)

Preliminary plans by Owen: the Queen's Gate site

Early in 1859 Owen made a report to the Trustees of the British Museum on the removal of the natural history collections, accompanied by a rough plan for a new building to house them. (fn. 10) The plan did not purport to suggest the architectural form, but shows that he envisaged a very extensive assemblage of single-storeyed galleries ranged at right angles to longitudinal galleries at front and rear. The lighting was to be from the top, not directly overhead but from the junction of walls and roofs, as in the Hunterian Museum and the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street. In these respects some elements of Waterhouse's final design were already adumbrated. Owen's chief desideratum in a museum was space, (fn. 11) and a striking aspect of this project was the great area of ground it would have covered in solid building. By reason of its single-storey arrangement, it would have occupied some ten or eleven acres—that is, three times more than the museum as built. Owen's conception was that a museum should be a proportionate microcosm of nature itself, and large enough to exhibit the varieties and developments of life on earth; to show, for example, 'how the type of the class may have risen from that of a lower, or may be mounting to that of a higher class', and to give a 'comprehensive, philosophic and connected view' of its subject-matter. (fn. 12) He did not scorn the direct demonstration of physical fact: he would show the 'largest examples' of elephant to exhibit 'the maximum of mass that can be supported and moved on dry land by a living animal', and a well-stuffed whale 'as an example of the power of the Creator as manifested by the hugeness of the creature'. (fn. 13) The expository and public-oriented role that Owen desired for the museum led him to advocate the exhibition of a high proportion of the collections: 'the intelligent wageman, tradesman or professional man . . . comes in the confidence of seeing the series of exhibited specimens so complete, and so displayed, as to enable him to identify his own specimen with one there ticketed with its proper name and locality'. (fn. 14) He planned to include a lecture theatre where heads of departments should explain their collections 'in short, elementary, and free Courses of Lectures', and for a central apartment containing two special displays. One was to be of 'specimens selected to show the type-characters of the principal groups of Organized Beings: it would form an Epitome of Natural History, and would convey to the eye, in the easiest way, an elementary knowledge of living Nature'. This very characteristic expression of Owen's concern with the relation of actual to archetypal forms came to be called the 'Index Museum'. The other display was to show such illustrations of each 'Class, Order and Genus' as were afforded by the native species of the British Isles (the 'British Natural History Museum'). (fn. 10)

A potential area for the museum was the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners' estate (fn. 15) and late in 1859 the Trustees considered the cost of an addition to the site in Bloomsbury compared with the removal of the natural history collections to South Kensington: the area in mind had dwindled to eight or possibly five acres. The estimated costs of land and building ranged between £600,000 and £1,280,000 for various schemes, in all of which the South Kensington alternative was the cheaper by sums ranging from £210,000 to £415,000. (fn. 16) In January 1860 the Trustees decided by a narrow majority to remove the collections (fn. 17) and negotiations proceeded with the 1851 Commissioners for the purchase of a five-acre site on the east side of Queen's Gate. The boundary of the Royal Horticultural Society's intended garden would have made it long and narrow—about 1,100 feet by 200 feet—but closely built-over, mainly in two storeys (as was now proposed), it would have given a great floorarea. The Trustees hoped to get it for £5,000 per acre but the Commissioners asked £10,000 per acre, which they thought only half its market value. (fn. 18) In August, however, a Select Committee of the House of Commons reported adversely on the scheme. It noted that apart from Owen 'the whole of the scientific naturalists examined before your Committee, including the Keepers of all the Departments of Natural History in the British Museum, are of opinion that an exhibition on so large a scale tends alike to the needless bewilderment and fatigue of the public, and the impediment of the studies of the scientific visitor'. (fn. 19) Divergence of opinion was to recur when the new museum came to be built, between Owen's inclination towards a comprehensive public display and the preference of others for a more selective exhibition attached to a studycollection. Owen's ambitions were severely criticized in the House of Commons in 1861, but he enjoyed the general support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day, Gladstone, who was himself a Trustee. A personal friendship developed, based in a common concern with the relations of science and religion. (T. H. Huxley distrusted both of them.) This meant that in contrast to other enterprises at South Kensington the Trustees' building plans had more frequent support from the Treasury, which sometimes figured in the unusual role of a goad to departmental activity on behalf of the Trustees' project. (fn. 1)

Following friendly correspondence between Owen and Gladstone in August 1861 (fn. 21) the Treasury reopened negotiations with the 1851 Commissioners, who early in the following year again offered the Queen's Gate site (then temporarily appropriated for the Western Annexe of the impending International Exhibition, plan a between pages 54–5), on the same terms as before. (fn. 22) In May 1862 (Sir) Henry Hunt, consultant surveyor to the Office of Works, and also the Commissioners' surveyor, prepared plans for Owen's scheme, to cover the five acres at a building cost of £500,000. (fn. 19) The character of the scheme is shown in the frontispiece of Owen's publication of 1862, On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History. At the front were two-storeyed longitudinal galleries. Behind them, the centre of the building was occupied by a circular lecture theatre, with the Index and British Natural History Museums over it: on either side, two-storeyed galleries were ranged at right angles to the front but alternated with lower and narrower top-lit galleries. This centre-and-wings arrangement was to survive in the building as finally executed, and so did the alternation of main and subsidiary galleries at the rear. Attached at one end was a library and official residences.

In the same month Gladstone introduced a Bill to authorize the removal of the collections. (fn. 23) The recently widowed Queen was anxious that this step towards the realization of the Prince's plans for South Kensington should be taken. (fn. 24) But there was much hostility in Parliament to the removal of collections from central London to the new suburb, as well as to Owen's expansive ambitions; (fn. 25) Gladstone's estimate of £600,000 or £700,000 as the total cost made him seem a spendthrift; and enough members on the Government side of the House of Commons voted with the Opposition to defeat the Bill. The Queen was extremely annoyed. (fn. 26) Owen was, however, encouraged by Gladstone to persevere, and prepared a more modest scheme, drawn out by Hunt in September, to cover four acres for £350,000. (fn. 27)

The present site: Fowke's competition design

Later in the summer of 1862 Gladstone, in his triple capacity as Trustee of the British Museum, 1851 Commissioner and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was turning to another scheme—to relieve the Commissioners of the embarrassing 1862 Exhibition building, and at the same time give the natural history collections (with other museum collections) an economical home, by the Government's purchase of the Exhibition site. Some thought the great nave of the building 'a grand and imposing space for the exhibition of specimens of the largest sized animals'. Owen consented, although he considered the exhibition spaces too lofty. (fn. 28) The House of Commons rather doubtingly approved the purchase of the land in June 1863. Buying out the contractors' interest in the building itself, however, required a further Parliamentary vote. This was the heyday of the independent Member, the building was much disliked, and in July (as has been seen in Chapter IX) the back-benchers of both parties combined to veto the acquisition of the building. The contractors proceeded to pull it down, and with it the prospective home of the natural history collections.

But the Government now had at its disposal the spacious site where the museum was eventually to be raised (the Commissioners making it over to the Office of Works in September 1864 (fn. 29) ). In January 1864 the First Commissioner of Works, W. F. Cowper, announced an open competition, with prizes of £400, £250 and £100, for the design of a museum-complex here that understandably but rather confusingly became known as the South Kensington museums competition. A natural history museum and a museum to house the collection of the Commissioners of Patents were to occupy the eastern half, and outline plans were also to be submitted for the whole site. Competitors were referred to Hunt's realization of Owen's second Queen's Gate plan of 1862 for the space-requirements of the natural history collections. (fn. 30) The Trustees promptly complained to the Treasury that they had not been consulted by the Office of Works, and reprimanded Owen when it emerged that the Office of Works had referred directly to him (fn. 31) —an intimation that the museum might prove to be many-voiced. However maladroit the handling of this announcement, the Office of Works improved upon previous practice in the choice of judges. The Government Offices competition in 1856 had attracted a large number of eminent architects but failed to provide a convincing professional judgment upon them. The five judges chosen in April 1864—(Sir) William Tite, (Sir) James Pennethorne, James Fergusson, the painter David Roberts and Lord Elcho, M.P. (fn. 32) —were likely to give a clear and reasonable verdict. Considering the magnitude of the prospective commission it was disappointing that few of the more eminent architects of the day competed. (fn. 33)(fn. 2) According to The Builderonly two of the thirty-three entries were 'Gothic'. Two were 'Greek', but even Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's had 'no chance of selection', The Builder thought. (fn. 34)

Tite, Fergusson and Elcho had been advocates of the demolition of the Exhibition building, but when the awards were announced in May it was found that the judges had given the first prize to none other than that building's architect, Captain Francis Fowke. It may be doubted whether they were ignorant of the authorship of the pseudonymous design, but Fergusson later spoke of their 'surprise' and the well-informed Henry Cole seems to have thought that Tite's surprise, at least, was genuine. (fn. 35) The second prize went to Professor Robert Kerr and the third to Cuthbert Brodrick. (fn. 36) Unlike Fowke's and Kerr's designs, Brodrick's seems not to have been illustrated in periodicals.

Fowke's design (Plate 60a; fig. 31) had been worked out with the help (privately employed by him) of his architectural office in the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, a fact of which the contentious second prizewinner complained. (fn. 37) One member of that office, John Liddell, who later in 1864 became Fowke's chief draughtsman, subsequently grew discontented. He had contemplated competing himself and after Fowke's death in 1865 publicly claimed to have originated the external treatment of the winning design, citing the undeniable fact that Fowke had shared the premium with him. On these grounds he assailed successive First Commissioners of Works in 1866 with demands for employment to carry out the design, which were roundly rejected by W. F. Cowper from 'respect for the memory and character of the late Captain Fowke'. (fn. 38) As late as 1879 Liddell was writing to the press of his 'sole authorship of the external design'. (fn. 39)(fn. 3)

Fowke's participation had evidently been at the urging of Henry Cole, the Department's secretary, (fn. 42) and although the Department was not officially associated with the design some feared that Fowke's success might jeopardize the museum's prospects by attracting to it the suspicions nursed against Cole and his Department. (fn. 43)

Fowke would have placed his natural history museum on the north side of the site and incorporated the buildings (of his own designing) on the south side of the Royal Horticultural Society's garden. In the centre a very grand sequence of apartments included a circular staircase hall and a large lecture theatre. He provided the essential galleries in an east wing, but envisaged the museum's expansion into a balancing west wing. (fn. 34) His design for the entire site, despite its symmetry, was so arranged that it could be executed piecemeal. (fn. 45) It was, on the whole, well received. The Builder, identifying the style as Bramantesque, liked it with some reservations. The Building Newsthought it unchaste but effective. The Companionto the Almanacfound the façade rich and striking and discerned 'a feeling for largeness of style and brilliancy of effect': The Athenaeum, on the other hand, while calling it an 'effective and splendid design', noticed 'a certain smoothness and smallness of grace . . . a lack of emphatic powers . . . [and] characteristic art'. (fn. 46) Fergusson himself later defended the judges' choice of this 'very beautiful design' which was 'thoroughly nineteenth century' and would have 'marked an epoch in the history of architecture in this country'. (fn. 47)

Fowke's natural history museum alone would have cost some £431,000 and the whole complex some £1,895,000, at 9d. to 1s. per cubic foot. (fn. 48) Unlike Kerr, and unlike his own practice at the South Kensington Museum, Fowke followed Owen's plan in covering the whole area of the natural history museum with building, and observed Owen's precept that lighting came best from the angle of wall and roof: his management of this feature was close to Waterhouse's in the museum as built. (fn. 49) He did not, however, alternate his main galleries with subsidiary galleries of smaller dimensions, as Owen's scheme of 1862 had done, and was in this perhaps liable to offend museum opinion. (fn. 50)

Kerr additionally protested to the First Commissioner of Works that Fowke had not observed some of the conditions of the competition. (fn. 51) It seems that the protest was referred to the Council of the Institute of British Architects and rejected by them. (Kerr was sufficiently annoyed to blackball Fowke's subsequent application for membership of the Institute, to the disgust of Street and other members. (fn. 52) ) Kerr had, however, better acquainted himself than Fowke with prevailing opinion within the museum on its planning, and in March 1865 the Trustees told the Treasury that they preferred Kerr's design, (fn. 53) though the departmental heads were evidently not uniformly dissatisfied with Fowke's planning. (fn. 54) Owen went to Edinburgh to look at Fowke's newly built natural history museum there; (fn. 55) and Fowke was instructed to adjust his plan in consultation with the Trustees. (fn. 56) But his health collapsed and in December he died.

The appointment of Waterhouse and his plan of 1868

Scenting danger to Fowke's design Cole immediately appealed to the Queen, who was grieved by the death of someone so closely associated with the Prince's aims in South Kensington, (fn. 57) to protect it from mutilation: (fn. 58)The Builder, on the contrary, called for the commission to be given to Kerr. (fn. 59) Cowper championed Fowke's design to the Treasury, (fn. 60) and in February 1866 appointed an architect to execute it.

He was Alfred Waterhouse, then thirty-six years old and about to enjoy the fullness of professional fame. The Assize Courts in Manchester had demonstrated his skill in planning, which no doubt recommended him to a department becoming conscious that the arrangement of the museum might present unexpected difficulties. But as an executant of Fowke's elevational design his selection was implausible. (fn. 61)(fn. 4)

However, Waterhouse followed Owen to Edinburgh, (fn. 64) and examined Fowke's buildings and plans at South Kensington. (fn. 65) Then in June 1866 the Liberals went out and Cowper was succeeded as First Commissioner of Works by Lord John Manners. The vote of funds for the building was postponed, (fn. 66) and it was early in 1868 before the work was taken up again. (fn. 67) By then the 'patent' and other museums had disappeared from the scheme. Waterhouse's avowed role at South Kensington had also now changed significantly. He was commissioned to prepare plans but was also explicitly empowered to revise Fowke's elevations if necessary. Except as an important influence on Waterhouse's style this was the end of Fowke's design, and any lack of 'character' in the architecture was now sure to be remedied.

In March 1868 Waterhouse submitted plans, sections and perspective views to the Office of Works. At the Clydesdale Bank in Lombard Street (1864–5) and at Strangeways Prison, then just completing, he had used quasi-Romanesque motifs, and at South Kensington he now proposed a more comprehensive essay in 'the roundarched style common in Southern Germany so late as the 12th Century'. He thought it would 'afford both the grandeur and simplicity which should characterize a building of this description'. (fn. 68) The repetitive round arches of the recent museum and garden buildings nearby may also have been a factor. So too, more specifically, must have been the composition of Fowke's design with its coupled round-headed windows in roundheaded arches. The adoption of an early rundbogenstil rather than Fowke's Renaissance style Waterhouse later explained also by his wish to use a facing of terra-cotta blocks, presumably because it better assimilated any irregularities of laying, (fn. 69) but a contributory reason may have been Owen's advocacy of 'objects of natural history' as ornamentation. Owen had already suggested this to Fowke, but the idea may have appealed to Waterhouse particularly in a Romanesque context. (fn. 19)

Compared with the complex problems posed by his monumental designs for Manchester and London, the arrangement of a museum must have seemed to promise Waterhouse a relatively simple task. His 1868 plan in fact owed much to Fowke's and to the Owen-Hunt scheme that lay behind it (Plate 60b, 60c; fig. 32). (fn. 70) Like Fowke's, Waterhouse's building was at that stage still anchored to Fowke's southern Horticultural garden range, where Waterhouse placed departmental and general libraries. South of this the new building was to cover nearly three and a half acres, the same area as the museum as finally built. It stood back some 340 feet from Cromwell Road, Waterhouse visualizing an open quadrangle in front of it. Like all the other plans it was symmetrical. In the centre a grand circular staircase hall led, as in Fowke's design, to a lecture theatre. Waterhouse departed from Fowke in the direction required by the museum's officers, however, by introducing subdivisions to reduce the size of his compartments and increase the wall-space. On the ground floor the top-lit transverse galleries were bisected and the alternate subsidiary galleries were reintroduced. Basement workshops were placed along the sides. (fn. 71) How Waterhouse handled the elevations is unknown, but as well as angletowers there were twin towers flanking a great entrance evidently rather like that built. Over the staircase hall was a pointed dome. (fn. 72) When Cole saw this or a closely related design in January 1869 he called it 'a manufacturing sort of thing. Byzantine.' (fn. 73)

In April 1868 the Trustees approved the plan with some modifications. (fn. 74) But the prospect of progress was illusory. Waterhouse had estimated that his scheme would cost about £495,000, (fn. 68) and this was probably too much. Lord John Manners said the size would have to be reduced, and in July suggested alterations to the design: either the diminution of the angle towers on plan 'to give them a more elegant proportion', or the elevation of the dome to make it 'the grand feature of the composition' at the expense of the entrance towers and angle towers, which would have been omitted. The vote of funds was therefore deferred. (fn. 75) Then in December the Conservatives went out and the Liberals came back under Gladstone. This should have been helpful, particularly with Henry Layard at the Office of Works. But unfortunately for the South Kensington scheme Layard preferred a superb site on the Embankment between Hungerford and Waterloo Bridges, as part of an intended riverside sequence of public buildings, and nearly eighteen months were taken up with the study of this attractive scheme (Plate 61a). Virtually everyone was in favour of it, including Cole. But the difficulty of reconciling it with plans for the Embankment Gardens was a factor against it, and eventually it was found to be impracticable. (fn. 76)

The development of plans 1870–2

In May 1870 attention reverted to South Kensington. By then Layard had given way as Gladstone's First Commissioner of Works to A. S. Ayrton, whose zeal for economy was a hard fact in the situation for the next four years. Waterhouse's estimate for a building on the Embankment had been about £500,000. (fn. 77) Back at Kensington Ayrton had the limit reduced to £330,000. (fn. 78) In August 1870 Waterhouse produced a design to fit this figure. The museum was to be detached from the buildings of the Horticultural Society's garden and placed further south. (fn. 79) The new site was some five feet below the level of Cromwell Road and the very expensive task of remedying this was not attempted: instead Waterhouse placed his basement storey of workshops partly above ground level. (fn. 5) The length of frontage was increased to some 750 feet, compared with a length around 680 feet in the 1868 design and as built. Despite this and the detached position the estimated cost was reduced because the project was limited to the avowedly unfinished part of a greater whole. The side and rear architectural elevations were omitted. So it was to be built, and so it has remained.

In place of the elaborate Fowkesian entrance, staircase hall and lecture theatre, the centre was less compartmented and approximated to the present arrangement. The lecture theatre had vanished from the scheme, although it appears to have been some years before Owen himself fully realized this. When he did, he seems to have been less complaisant than was implied by a statement of the Trustees (who had been asked to explain this 'important omission' in 1873 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe). Possibly Owen was more eager that his colleagues should lecture than they were themselves. (fn. 81)

The function of a lecture theatre was partly fulfilled by the central hall. This was henceforward dedicated to Owen's exemplary Index Museum.

Another significant omission was of any compartment designed to house a general library. Owen's wish for the transference of the Banksian Library from Bloomsbury (fn. 82) was frustrated by the Trustees: a library had to be built up anew, (fn. 83) and accommodation was provided specifically for it only after the 1939–45 war.

A further economical simplification removed the cross-walls from the transverse galleries, which became even longer (200 feet) than in Fowke's design. The alternate subsidiary galleries were reserved for study. The whole covered about the same area as the executed version. The Treasury agreed to a vote of funds (fn. 84) and in September 1870 Waterhouse was added to the prominent architects then under contract to the Office of Works when he was officially appointed architect of 'the portion of a Building to meet the present wants of the Natural History Museum consisting of a Front, to the south . . . the Fronts of the Building to the East, West and North being altogether omitted'. His fee at 5 per cent of £330,000 was to be £16,500. (fn. 85)

Early in 1871 he produced full plans. (fn. 86) Two steps nearer the eventual arrangement were taken. The length of front was reduced, and a 'gallery of communication' was introduced between the front ranges and transverse galleries, which were again reduced in length. (fn. 87) But one feature of the interior was causing particular trouble. T. H. Huxley (when professor of biology at the Royal School of Mines) had been chief proponent of a scheme to exploit the alternation of public and reserved galleries by placing between them display cases permanently closed on the public side but accessible to students and staff. He had urged this on Layard in 1868, suggesting that on the public side the glass fronts should be 'like one long shop window'. (fn. 88) Waterhouse had planned for it in 1870–1 by reducing the walls between the public and reserved galleries to piers only. But the provenance of the suggestion did not recommend it to Owen, and Waterhouse soon found that, apart from this, the museum authorities rejected the arrangement for student access as unpractical. (fn. 89) The Duke of Devonshire's Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction, which was susceptible to Huxley's influence, tried to have a say in the planning of the museum, (fn. 90) and in 1874 and again in 1877 gave some support to the 'Huxley' arrangement. (fn. 91) But the museum authorities were unmoved, bringing criticism upon themselves for their supposed indifference to students' needs. (fn. 92)

On the utility of the alternate reserved galleries opinion in the museum was in fact becoming divided: probably J. E. Gray, the keeper of zoology (destined for the west wing), was mainly in favour, and G. R. Waterhouse, the keeper of geology (east wing) mainly against. The latter wanted particularly extensive alterations to Waterhouse's plan: he would have divided every gallery in two or three and altered the area between the front and transverse galleries. (fn. 93) The natural history departments had considerable autonomy that Owen could not over-ride, and the museum authorities asked the Office of Works for the two wings to be planned differently. (fn. 94) The Office resisted this rather sensible suggestion, which it thought arose merely from the inability of the keepers to agree among themselves and to be unbefitting 'a public museum of this importance'. (fn. 95) Waterhouse's reaction is not recorded, but his design had committed him generally to symmetry.

Later in 1871 a Parliamentary vote of £30,000 was made for the commencement of the museum (fn. 96) and by early in 1872 Waterhouse had made another set of plans. The chief development was that the site had been moved still nearer Cromwell Road, to its present position. (fn. 97) Inside the museum some difference between the two wings appeared, chiefly in the manner of separation of the front and transverse galleries, which still survives in the present building. The east, geological, wing was less subdivided than its keeper had wanted, but the openings between the public and reserve galleries there were now to be closed. In the rear central compartment Owen's British Natural History Museum is shown. On the elevation the central entrance was finished by a straight balustrade, and this, in harmony with Owen's conception of the museum, was to be surmounted by figures of Adam and Eve. Generally the elevational treatment was as executed, with some elements of Fowke's composition discernible in the wings and end pavilions (fn. 98) (Plates 60a, 61c).

Nevertheless, for some time Cole had been making a nuisance of himself on behalf of Fowke's original design, and his sympathizers in the House of Commons, George CavendishBentinck and Lord Elcho, tried belatedly to get rid of Waterhouse's 'abomination'. (fn. 99) (Cole received no co-operation, however, from his son-in-law, Fowke's son Frank, who saw the campaign chiefly as an attempt to put yet another commission into the hands of his father's successor, General Scott. (fn. 100) ) The party made no headway against Gladstone, and Fergusson's ridicule of Waterhouse's 'period' style in Macmillan's Magazine in January 1872 was equally ineffectual. But then the development of the design was thrown into reverse, and it was an action of Waterhouse himself that was the proximate cause. In July 1872 specifications were being prepared for invitations to tender. In the two years since the limit of expenditure had been set trade had revived and costs were going up. Wages in particular had been rising. Waterhouse therefore told the Office of Works that tenders might be 10 or 20 per cent over the 1870 estimate. If he supposed that this would be inertly received he misjudged Ayrton. The First Commissioner of Works held the £330,000 limit to be inviolable and deduced that the design should be cheapened by the requisite proportion to allow for cost-inflation. Some alarmed reassurance by Waterhouse was ineffective and he found himself obliged to cut down his design. (fn. 101) In September tenders were submitted: the lowest was £395,000. Waterhouse was once more set to work on reductions, and in December the Office of Works, under some pressure from the Treasury for work to begin, reluctantly accepted a revised tender of £352,000. (fn. 102) The contract with the builders, George Baker and Son of Lambeth, was concluded in February 1873. (fn. 103) By September the foundations were up to ground level. (fn. 104)(fn. c1)

The building of the museum 1873 onwards

To economize, some granite was replaced by Portland stone in the containing and approach walls. Slates replaced lead on the roofs, and brick replaced terra-cotta in the internal courts. Inside, plaster ceilings replaced wooden, and the decoration was both reduced and postponed. These changes are perceptible in the museum as built. But the most conspicuous reduction in the design was the intended replacement of the twin entrance towers by low spires. The two ventilation towers at the back were also for a time intended to be replaced by one lower tower. By 1876 the Conservatives were back in office, and the First Commissioner of Works, Lord Henry Lennox, was not unwilling to improve upon his Liberal predecessor's taste: (fn. 105) the museum officers also wanted the space afforded by the entrance towers. (fn. 106) Waterhouse was hopeful, exhibiting a view of the building with the entrance towers restored (Plate 61c). (fn. 107) But because of financial restrictions it was January 1878 before the Treasury authorized this, at a contract price of £13,778. (fn. 108) Waterhouse later said that this abortive economy of Ayrton's had increased the final cost of the building by £3,000. (fn. 109)

Between the towers, Waterhouse redesigned the centre of his façade to rise to the present gable. (fn. 110) In early photographs this is shown surmounted by the single figure of Adam.

Other alterations to the design internally had been made soon after building had begun. Having decided against the 'Huxley' display scheme, the museum authorities in December 1873 asked for the openings between the transverse galleries to be closed in the west wing as well as the east. (fn. 111) The dividing walls can hardly have been raised to any height by then, but an 'in-filling' between the proposed piers was determined upon and the blind arches between the transverse galleries still appear in the present building as pseudo-vestiges of an unimplemented scheme. Soon afterwards regard for the demands of public display caused the abandonment of the whole idea of the reservation of the intermediate galleries for students' use. Some of Waterhouse's arrangements for access to basement workshops were thus upset, and he seems to have been irritated. (fn. 112) Other alterations, perhaps associated with restiveness by departmental keepers against Owen's superintendence, were agreed to in August 1876, bringing the openings and partitions in the rear galleries nearly to their present state. (fn. 113)

The idea of a large ground-floor Refreshment Room had been abandoned in 1871 and an intended Dining Room at the rear of the first floor was now, in 1876, also given up, the apartment being redesignated the Trustees' Board Room, which it still is. (fn. 114) The austerely sparse accommodation for refreshment, contrasting with that in the South Kensington Museum, was criticized in 1883. (fn. 115)

In the same month of August 1876 an ominous note was struck in Waterhouse's correspondence with the Office of Works, when he refused to certify a payment to the contractors. They were involved in difficulties over the unreliable supply of terra-cotta, (fn. 116) and had had to send a representative to live at the makers' works in Staffordshire. (fn. 117) The construction of the museum was in fact to have a very unhappy history. One basic reason was Waterhouse's decision to face the museum entirely with a material not normally employed so extensively. This had limited the possible choice of suppliers, and when the invitation to tender had been in contemplation in November 1871 Waterhouse had wanted a separate competition and contract for the terra-cotta. The Office of Works preferred to maintain the contractors' over-all responsibility. (fn. 118)

In September 1872 the lowest tender of seventeen had been put in by George Baker and Son, who had possibly been invited to compete on Waterhouse's direct recommendation. (fn. 119) As has been seen, they had finally been employed on the basis of a revised tender (at £352,000). The high level of the tendered prices was attributed largely to the lack of competition among the subcontracting terra-cotta makers. (fn. 120) The firm chosen was Gibbs and Canning of Tamworth. Later, the Office of Works' consultant surveyor, Hunt, said that Waterhouse had virtually forced them upon Baker and Son: this he denied, but it is at least clear that he was an active intermediary in the arrangement. (fn. 121) The terra-cotta makers were given the privilege of monthly payment by the Office of Works on the certificate of the contractors.

By the beginning of 1876 when the contractors should have completed their work the building was only half finished. At that stage Hunt and Waterhouse agreed in blaming the terra-cotta deliveries. (fn. 122) The main roofs were covered-in early in 1878. (fn. 123) Then in the summer of 1879, when the museum was nearly finished, the contractors failed, although their creditors notified the Office of Works that they would complete the contract. (fn. 124) In October 1881 Hunt was commenting on 'the total and absolute ruin of the contractors, two of whom have recently died'. (fn. 125) The cause of their failure was by then being hotly disputed. The official explanation was rising costs, (fn. 126) which, it seems, may have procured for Baker and Son some concession of increased payment soon after the signing of their contract. (fn. 127) Waterhouse now attributed Baker and Son's failure to their lack of 'generalship', and more specifically to delay in the supply of iron, not terra-cotta. (fn. 128) The very high price of iron in 1872 had contributed to the high cost of tenders. (fn. 129) In the end, all the iron was reported to have come from Belgium—'a fact well worth pondering over by British workmen', as The Buildersaid. (fn. 130) The trustees of Baker and Son's estate continued to blame the terra-cotta supply, but now chiefly laid blame on the long history of alterations in the design. (fn. 131) It is evident that what was meant was not so much the changes of plan and composition already mentioned, as manifold changes in the architectural detailing.

One cause of this lay in Waterhouse's attempt to give a two-colour effect to the mainly buff façade. Difficulty in obtaining a supply of sound blue-grey terra-cotta led him to reduce the quantity of this variety used externally, but, in order to achieve the intended vivacity of effect, to increase the modelling of the surface in compensation. (fn. 132) (Another revision was the reduction in the size of the individual blocks to improve firing, although Waterhouse thought this facilitated handling. (fn. 133) )

The outstanding feature of the detailing was that it was illustrative, portraying the subjectmatter, existing and extinct, of the museum (Plates 62c, 62d, 63a, 63b; figs. 34, 35). Examples were suggested to Waterhouse by Owen, (fn. 134) whom Waterhouse asked to inspect the first plaster models before manufacture in terra-cotta. (fn. 135) The plaster models were made by Monsieur Dujardin of the firm of architectural modellers, Farmer and Brindley, (fn. 136) from careful pencil drawings by Waterhouse himself. (fn. 137) The decoration of the east and west wings of the museum was with extinct and living species respectively, corresponding to the distribution of the geological and zoological collections. Sorting the terra-cotta into the right category was to be an item in a large claim for extra payment by Baker and Son's trustees. (fn. 138)

Waterhouse had insisted throughout that his alterations would in sum reduce the building costs. (fn. 139) Taking additions and subtractions together, however, the alterations were valued at upward of a quarter of a million pounds, (fn. 125) and the question who should pay for the surveyor's costing of this 'gigantic puzzle' became itself an issue between Waterhouse and the Office of Works. (fn. 139) The Office's consultant surveyor, Hunt, was very condemnatory of Waterhouse. In June 1881 Baker and Son's trustees, arguing that the alterations amounted to a breach of contract, claimed some £80,000 beyond the agreed price, and refused an offer of £10,000. (fn. 140) Hunt, with the support of the Office's solicitor, reported in October that an appeal to arbitration on behalf of the contractors might be successful. (fn. 141) An offer of £25,000 was made and accepted in July 1882. (fn. 142) Hunt attributed some of Waterhouse's difficulties to the demands of 'the professors' but told him that the added expense caused by his alterations was 'a scandal and a shame'. (fn. 143) To the Office of Works Hunt suggested that they should proceed against Waterhouse for 'a serious dereliction of duty' and 'negligence or indifference to his moral and as I humbly think, his legal obligation to the Board'. He raised the question whether the Board should in future use only architects over whom they could exercise more control. (fn. 144)

The final cost of the building itself was evidently some £412,000 compared with the original limit of £330,000. To this was added Waterhouse's commission of 5 per cent on that smaller sum, the additional cost of the towers, some but not all of the finishings and some but not all of the costing-surveyor's charges: his remuneration totalled £19,730. (fn. 145)

There was also the expense of the furniture and cases. By reason of the nature of the collection they required (and still require) exceptional care and expense. In December 1877 the Treasury had accepted an estimate of no less than £177,045 for these, and Waterhouse had been directed to design the fittings. (fn. 146) Throughout the following year he produced designs for wall-cases and other furnishings. (fn. 147) Financial difficulties, however, were overtaking Disraeli's Government. The country's imperial status had helped the growth of the collections, but economies at home were now required to sustain overseas involvements. (fn. 148)(fn. 5) Late in 1879 the Treasury pronounced the expenditure of 'the enormous sum' of £137,570 outstanding from the earlier estimate to be 'quite out of the question', (fn. 150) and the public opening of the museum was delayed by lack of funds for fittings. (fn. 151) In the end, the benches and chairs were of Waterhouse's designing (many are still in use) but some at least of the cases were made to the design of (Sir) John Taylor, the Office of Works' surveyor, who later claimed the credit for them although they were compared unfavourably with Waterhouse's furniture. (fn. 152) And the final cost was still nearly £137,000. (fn. 153)

With this exception Waterhouse's hand was seen throughout. The plaster ceilings were painted, less elaborately than first intended, by Best and Lea of Manchester. (fn. 154) The stained-glass windows of Waterhouse's designing were made by F. T. Odell of Finsbury. (fn. 155) Burke and Company of Newman Street made the mosaic pavements, which were confined to the central compartments from regard for the comfort of the curators, despite a stately plea by Cole for the general use of tiles or mosaic. (fn. 156) The ornamental ironwork was made by Hart, Son and Peard of Wych Street. (fn. 157) The slating of the roofs, where Waterhouse showed his niceness of touch, was by T. Stirling. (fn. 157)

The building was handed over to the British Museum by the Office of Works in June 1880 and opened to the public in three of its four departments in April 1881: the last (zoological) gallery was opened in 1886 (Plates 63c, 64–65, 66a, b, 66c; fig. 33). (fn. 158) Owen at last had his great museum, oriented mainly towards public display. (Waterhouse had told him in 1878 that the floor-space devoted to exhibits amounted to 4¾ acres, to workshops rather more than ½ acre and to storage space 1½ acres. (fn. 15) ) He also had his 'British Natural History Museum' although the 'Index Museum' in the Central Hall was less elaborate than he wished: its development largely awaited his successor, Sir William Flower. (fn. 159) Gladstone had Owen given his K.C.B. in 1883. He also sent Owen a copy of his forthcoming article directed against T. H. Huxley, the 'Proem to Genesis', to which Owen replied with E. P. Ramsay's paper on the egg of the porcupine ant-eater. (fn. 160)

In his account of the museum to the Biology Section of the British Association in 1881 Owen reaffirmed his preference for top-lit galleries of modest height: the transverse galleries represented a 'developmental advance' over the Central Hall and side-lit galleries, which expressed the 'character of the primitive and now extinct museum'. (fn. 19)

The reception of Waterhouse's building was on the whole favourable. (fn. 161) Its transfusion of a period style into something unmistakeably of its own day was liked, and the Companionto the British Almanacwent so far as to call it 'forwardlooking' contrasted with the 'backward-looking' Law Courts. (fn. 162) The use of terra-cotta was praised for commonsense reasons, but the refinement of its handling was also noted. In a particularly appreciative article in 1881 E. Ingress Bell stressed the museum's picturesque or painterly qualities—in fact it was 'a Victorian building, and no other'. (fn. 163) Ten years before, TheTimeshad feared that it might prove to be 'a violent and dangerous contrast' to the Huxley Building. (fn. 164) But this objection seems not to have been revived.

Inside, the lighting of the exhibits had been carefully studied. But Cole was implacable, thinking the building greatly inferior to his South Kensington Museum in such practicalities: 'design begotten in sin has produced a crippled, dark, foolish building, most inappropriate, illlighted, badly ventilated'. (fn. 165) Owen on the contrary spoke of the 'flood of light' in the Central Hall, (fn. 19) and in places experience showed that Waterhouse's lighting was actually too abundant. (fn. 166) Nowadays only limited use is made of Waterhouse's arrangements for natural lighting. Originally, the central section alone was artificially lit, by gas. (fn. 115)

Soon, too, exhibition space was being converted to study and storage purposes and this shift from Owen's approach made Waterhouse's plan seem inconvenient. The radical separation of zoological and palaeontological material was criticized and soon seemed out of date. (fn. 167)

Waterhouse's reputation suffered nothing from the builders' difficulties. Even in the official mind Hunt's strictures had no permanent effect, and eight or nine years later the Office of Works gave Waterhouse an honoured place in the South Kensington Museum competition.

At the Natural History Museum Waterhouse was asked in June 1881 to make plans for a separate building to house objects preserved in spirit. He estimated that his design would cost £7,350 exclusive of fittings, and fortunately an acceptable tender was offered (by George Shaw) at £7,200. The detached building at the rear of the museum (Plate 74b) was finished by March 1883. (fn. 168)

This does not survive, but another ancillary building, the residential Lodge, designed by Waterhouse in 1883 to accommodate an engineer and messenger in semi-detached houses, still stands near Queen's Gate (fig. 35). Mowlem and Company's tender was accepted at £2,300. The Lodge was composed to look well if the ground level was lowered some 5½ feet when the museum should be enlarged and the existing garden level extended northward. (fn. 169)

By 1884 the total expenditure on the museum buildings and fittings was some £602,000. (fn. 153)

Later developments

When extension became a live topic c. 1911 it was involved in an attempt, originating mainly outside the museum, to secure physical links between it and the two other museums being planned to the northward, the Science Museum and the Geological Museum. In 1911 the British Museum agreed that the latter should be built in the Natural History Museum's grounds, and as part, physically, of an extension to that museum. (fn. 170) A design to realize this by a continuation of the front range in Waterhouse's style, with a duplication of his angle towers at each end, was prepared by Sir Henry Tanner of the Office of Works in 1911–13. (fn. 6) By 1914, however, Tanner's successor (Sir) Richard Allison, had prepared plans in the classical style. (fn. 171) But the war of 1914–18 prevented anything being done (although the Science Museum was begun in 1914). In c. 1920–3 a new 'spirit museum' was built to the design of J. H. Markham of the Office of Works, extending west from the north-west corner of the museum. (fn. 172) Happily, the advance of science had not quenched an enthusiasm for whales, and in 1929–32 the same architect had the pleasing task of designing a Whale Hall on the north side of the museum, to house the model and skeleton of Balaenoptera musculus. (fn. 173) Its location accorded with the recommendation of the Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries in 1927–8 that any extension should be northward, over an area of 'ugliness and squalor'. (fn. 174) At that time the idea of a junction between the three museums was revived by the authorities of the newly building Geological Museum but the Natural History Museum did not approve of it and no connexion was then made although the Geological Museum was placed adjacent to the museum's geological wing (see page 258). Between 1935 and 1938 an entomological block was built on the west side, and between 1949 and 1952 it was extended by W. Kendall of the Ministry of Works to meet the new spirit museum (which was also extended westward in the same period). (fn. 175)

In 1955–8 the first stage of a major northern extension of the museum was built to Kendall's design on the site of the old spirit museum. This was in conjunction with the central section of the Science Museum, to which it gave public access. A General Library and a Lecture Theatre were included, so fulfilling Owen's scheme. (fn. 176)

In 1973 the second stage of this northern extension was completed and an L-shaped east wing designed by G. A. H. Pearce of the Department of the Environment was under construction, to house the palaeontological department and be linked to the Geological Museum (plan d between pages 54–5).

Inside the museum the botanical gallery, damaged during the 1939–45 war, has been reconstructed, in 1962, over the geological gallery. (fn. 177) Other galleries (including British birds, insects, African mammals and meteorites) have been thoroughly masked to give more effective displays. In the side-lit galleries along the front only the west wing on the ground floor preserved in 1974 the relationship between the pier-cornices and display-cases intended by Waterhouse.

For other uses, see British Museum (disambiguation).

The British Museum, located in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection, numbering some 8 million works,[4] is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence[4] and originates from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present.[a]

The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane.[5] The museum first opened to the public on 15 January 1759, in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. Its expansion over the following two and a half centuries was largely a result of expanding British colonization and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington in 1881 (it is nowadays simply called the Natural History Museum, and is separate and independent).

In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all other national museums in the United Kingdom it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.[6]


Hans Sloane[edit]

Although today principally a museum of cultural art objects and antiquities, the British Museum was founded as a "universal museum". Its foundations lie in the will of the Irish-born British physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). During the course of his lifetime Sloane gathered an enviable collection of curiosities and, not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for a sum of £20,000.[7]

At that time, Sloane's collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds[8] including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints and drawings including those by Albrecht Dürer and antiquities from Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and Far East and the Americas.[9]

Foundation (1753)[edit]

On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum.[b] The British Museum Act 1753 also added two other libraries to the Sloane collection, namely the Cottonian Library, assembled by Sir Robert Cotton, dated back to Elizabethan times and the Harleian library, the collection of the Earls of Oxford. They were joined in 1757 by the "Old Royal Library", now the Royal manuscripts, assembled by various British monarchs. Together these four "foundation collections" included many of the most treasured books now in the British Library[11] including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf.[c]

The British Museum was the first of a new kind of museum – national, belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public and aiming to collect everything. Sloane's collection, while including a vast miscellany of objects, tended to reflect his scientific interests.[12] The addition of the Cotton and Harley manuscripts introduced a literary and antiquarian element and meant that the British Museum now became both National Museum and library.[13]

Cabinet of curiosities (1753–78)[edit]

The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, which it bought from the Montagu family for £20,000. The trustees rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace, on the grounds of cost and the unsuitability of its location.[14][d]

With the acquisition of Montagu House, the first exhibition galleries and reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759.[15] In 1823, King George IV[16] gave the King's Library assembled by George III, and Parliament gave the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the museum's library would expand indefinitely. During the few years after its foundation the British Museum received several further gifts, including the Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts and David Garrick's library of 1,000 printed plays. The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the museum acquired for £8,410 its first significant antiquities in Sir William Hamilton's "first" collection of Greek vases.[17]

Indolence and energy (1778–1800)[edit]

From 1778, a display of objects from the South Seas brought back from the round-the-world voyages of Captain James Cook and the travels of other explorers fascinated visitors with a glimpse of previously unknown lands. The bequest of a collection of books, engraved gems, coins, prints and drawings by Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1800 did much to raise the museum's reputation; but Montagu House became increasingly crowded and decrepit and it was apparent that it would be unable to cope with further expansion.[18]

The museum's first notable addition towards its collection of antiquities, since its foundation, was by Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British Ambassador to Naples, who sold his collection of Greek and Roman artefacts to the museum in 1784 together with a number of other antiquities and natural history specimens. A list of donations to the museum, dated 31 January 1784, refers to the Hamilton bequest of a "Colossal Foot of an Apollo in Marble". It was one of two antiquities of Hamilton's collection drawn for him by Francesco Progenie, a pupil of Pietro Fabris, who also contributed a number of drawings of Mount Vesuvius sent by Hamilton to the Royal Society in London.

Growth and change (1800–25)[edit]

In the early 19th century the foundations for the extensive collection of sculpture began to be laid and Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts dominated the antiquities displays. After the defeat of the French campaign in the Battle of the Nile, in 1801, the British Museum acquired more Egyptian sculptures and in 1802 King George III presented the Rosetta Stone – key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs.[19] Gifts and purchases from Henry Salt, British consul general in Egypt, beginning with the Colossal bust of Ramesses II in 1818, laid the foundations of the collection of Egyptian Monumental Sculpture.[20] Many Greek sculptures followed, notably the first purpose-built exhibition space, the Charles Towneley collection, much of it Roman Sculpture, in 1805. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 removed the large collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens and transferred them to the UK. In 1816 these masterpieces of western art, were acquired by The British Museum by Act of Parliament and deposited in the museum thereafter.[21] The collections were supplemented by the Bassae frieze from Phigaleia, Greece in 1815. The Ancient Near Eastern collection also had its beginnings in 1825 with the purchase of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities from the widow of Claudius James Rich.[22]

In 1802 a buildings committee was set up to plan for expansion of the museum, and further highlighted by the donation in 1822 of the King's Library, personal library of King George III's, comprising 65,000 volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, maps, charts and topographical drawings.[23] The neoclassical architect, Sir Robert Smirke, was asked to draw up plans for an eastern extension to the museum "... for the reception of the Royal Library, and a Picture Gallery over it ..."[24] and put forward plans for today's quadrangular building, much of which can be seen today. The dilapidated Old Montagu House was demolished and work on the King's Library Gallery began in 1823. The extension, the East Wing, was completed by 1831. However, following the founding of the National Gallery, London in 1824,[e] the proposed Picture Gallery was no longer needed, and the space on the upper floor was given over to the Natural history collections.[25]

The largest building site in Europe (1825–50)[edit]

The museum became a construction site as Sir Robert Smirke's grand neo-classical building gradually arose. The King's Library, on the ground floor of the East Wing, was handed over in 1827, and was described as one of the finest rooms in London. Although it was not fully open to the general public until 1857, special openings were arranged during The Great Exhibition of 1851. In spite of dirt and disruption the collections grew, outpacing the new building.[citation needed]

In 1840, the museum became involved in its first overseas excavations, Charles Fellows's expedition to Xanthos, in Asia Minor, whence came remains of the tombs of the rulers of ancient Lycia, among them the Nereid and Payava monuments. In 1857, Charles Newton was to discover the 4th-century BC Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1840s and 1850s the museum supported excavations in Assyria by A.H. Layard and others at sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh. Of particular interest to curators was the eventual discovery of Ashurbanipal's great library of cuneiformtablets, which helped to make the museum a focus for Assyrian studies.[26]

Sir Thomas Grenville (1755–1846), a trustee of the British Museum from 1830, assembled a library of 20,240 volumes, which he left to the museum in his will. The books arrived in January 1847 in twenty-one horse-drawn vans. The only vacant space for this large library was a room originally intended for manuscripts, between the Front Entrance Hall and the Manuscript Saloon. The books remained here until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.

Collecting from the wider world (1850–75)[edit]

The opening of the forecourt in 1852 marked the completion of Robert Smirke's 1823 plan, but already adjustments were having to be made to cope with the unforeseen growth of the collections. Infill galleries were constructed for Assyrian sculptures and Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room, with space for a million books, opened in 1857. Because of continued pressure on space the decision was taken to move natural history to a new building in South Kensington, which would later become the British Museum of Natural History.

Roughly contemporary with the construction of the new building was the career of a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now part of the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organised institution worthy of being called a national library, the largest library in the world after the National Library of Paris.[13] The quadrangle at the centre of Smirke's design proved to be a waste of valuable space and was filled at Panizzi's request by a circular Reading Room of cast iron, designed by Smirke's brother, Sydney Smirke.[27]

Until the mid-19th century, the museum's collections were relatively circumscribed but, in 1851, with the appointment to the staff of Augustus Wollaston Franks to curate the collections, the museum began for the first time to collect British and European medieval antiquities, prehistory, branching out into Asia and diversifying its holdings of ethnography. A real coup for the museum was the purchase in 1867, over French objections, of the Duke of Blacas's wide-ranging and valuable collection of antiquities. Overseas excavations continued and John Turtle Wood discovered the remains of the 4th century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, another Wonder of the Ancient World.[28]

Scholarship and legacies (1875–1900)[edit]

The natural history collections were an integral part of the British Museum until their removal to the new British Museum of Natural History in 1887, nowadays the Natural History Museum. With the departure and the completion of the new White Wing (fronting Montague Street) in 1884, more space was available for antiquities and ethnography and the library could further expand. This was a time of innovation as electric lighting was introduced in the Reading Room and exhibition galleries.[29]

The William Burges collection of armoury was bequeathed to the museum in 1881. In 1882, the museum was involved in the establishment of the independent Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) the first British body to carry out research in Egypt. A bequest from Miss Emma Turner in 1892 financed excavations in Cyprus. In 1897 the death of the great collector and curator, A.W. Franks, was followed by an immense bequest of 3,300 finger rings, 153 drinking vessels, 512 pieces of continental porcelain, 1,500 netsuke, 850 inro, over 30,000 bookplates and miscellaneous items of jewellery and plate, among them the Oxus Treasure.[30]

In 1898 Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bequeathed the Waddesdon Bequest, the glittering contents from his New Smoking Room at Waddesdon Manor. This consisted of almost 300 pieces of objets d'art et de vertu which included exquisite examples of jewellery, plate, enamel, carvings, glass and maiolica, among them the Holy Thorn Reliquary, probably created in the 1390s in Paris for John, Duke of Berry. The collection was in the tradition of a schatzkammer or treasure house such as those formed by the Renaissance princes of Europe.[31] Baron Ferdinand's will was most specific, and failure to observe the terms would make it void, the collection should be

placed in a special room to be called the Waddesdon Bequest Room separate and apart from the other contents of the Museum and thenceforth for ever thereafter, keep the same in such room or in some other room to be substituted for it.[31]

These terms are still observed, and the collection occupies room 45, although it will move to new quarters in 2015.

New century, new building (1900–25)[edit]

By the last years of the 19th century, The British Museum's collections had increased so much that the museum building was no longer big enough for them. In 1895 the trustees purchased the 69 houses surrounding the museum with the intention of demolishing them and building around the west, north and east sides of the museum. The first stage was the construction of the northern wing beginning 1906.

All the while, the collections kept growing. Emil Torday collected in Central Africa, Aurel Stein in Central Asia, D.G. Hogarth, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence excavated at Carchemish. Around this time, the American collector and philanthropist J Pierpont Morgan donated a substantial number of objects to the museum,[32] including William Greenwell's collection of prehistoric artefacts from across Europe which he had purchased for £10,000 in 1908. Morgan had also acquired a major part of Sir John Evans's coin collection, which was later sold to the museum by his son John Pierpont Morgan Junior in 1915. In 1918, because of the threat of wartime bombing, some objects were evacuated to a Postal Tube Railway at Holborn, the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth) and a country house near Malvern. On the return of antiquities from wartime storage in 1919 some objects were found to have deteriorated. A temporary conservation laboratory was set up in May 1920 and became a permanent department in 1931. It is today the oldest in continuous existence.[33] In 1923, the British Museum welcomed over one million visitors.

Disruption and reconstruction (1925–50)[edit]

New mezzanine floors were constructed and book stacks rebuilt in an attempt to cope with the flood of books. In 1931, the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen offered funds to build a gallery for the Parthenon sculptures. Designed by the American architect John Russell Pope, it was completed in 1938. The appearance of the exhibition galleries began to change as dark Victorian reds gave way to modern pastel shades.[f] However, in August 1939, due to the imminence of war and the likelihood of air-raids, the Parthenon Sculptures, along with the museum's most valued collections, were dispersed to secure basements, country houses, Aldwych Underground station, the National Library of Wales and a quarry. The evacuation was timely, for in 1940 the Duveen Gallery was severely damaged by bombing.[35] Meanwhile, prior to the war, the Nazis had sent a researcher to the British Museum for several years with the aim of "compiling an anti-Semitic history of Anglo-Jewry."[36] After the war, the museum continued to collect from all countries and all centuries: among the most spectacular additions were the 2600 BC Mesopotamian treasure from Ur, discovered during Leonard Woolley's 1922–34 excavations. Gold, silver and garnet grave goods from the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo (1939) and late Roman silver tableware from Mildenhall, Suffolk (1946). The immediate post-war years were taken up with the return of the collections from protection and the restoration of the museum after the Blitz. Work also began on restoring the damaged Duveen Gallery.

A new public face (1950–75)[edit]

In 1953, the museum celebrated its bicentenary. Many changes followed: the first full-time in house designer and publications officer were appointed in 1964, A Friends organisation was set up in 1968, an Education Service established in 1970 and publishing house in 1973. In 1963, a new Act of Parliament introduced administrative reforms. It became easier to lend objects, the constitution of the board of trustees changed and the Natural History Museum became fully independent. By 1959 the Coins and Medals office suite, completely destroyed during the war, was rebuilt and re-opened, attention turned towards the gallery work with new tastes in design leading to the remodelling of Robert Smirke's Classical and Near Eastern galleries.[37] In 1962 the Duveen Gallery was finally restored and the Parthenon Sculptures were moved back into it, once again at the heart of the museum.[g]

By the 1970s the museum was again expanding. More services for the public were introduced; visitor numbers soared, with the temporary exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972, attracting 1,694,117 visitors, the most successful in British history. In the same year the Act of Parliament establishing the British Library was passed, separating the collection of manuscripts and printed books from the British Museum. This left the museum with antiquities; coins, medals and paper money; prints & drawings; and ethnography. A pressing problem was finding space for additions to the library which now required an extra 1​14 miles of shelving each year. The Government suggested a site at St Pancras for the new British Library but the books did not leave the museum until 1997.

The Great Court emerges (1975–2000)[edit]

The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court – the largest covered square in Europe – which opened in 2000. The ethnography collections, which had been housed in the short-lived Museum of Mankind at 6 Burlington Gardens from 1970, were returned to new purpose-built galleries in the museum in 2000.

The museum again readjusted its collecting policies as interest in "modern" objects: prints, drawings, medals and the decorative arts reawakened. Ethnographical fieldwork was carried out in places as diverse as New Guinea, Madagascar, Romania, Guatemala and Indonesia and there were excavations in the Near East, Egypt, Sudan and the UK. The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain, opened in 1997, displayed a number of recently discovered hoards which demonstrated the richness of what had been considered an unimportant part of the Roman Empire. The museum turned increasingly towards private funds for buildings, acquisitions and other purposes.[39]

The British Museum today[edit]

Today the museum no longer houses collections of natural history, and the books and manuscripts it once held now form part of the independent British Library. The museum nevertheless preserves its universality in its collections of artefacts representing the cultures of the world, ancient and modern. The original 1753 collection has grown to over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library.

The Round Reading Room, which was designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, opened in 1857. For almost 150 years researchers came here to consult the museum's vast library. The Reading Room closed in 1997 when the national library (the British Library) moved to a new building at St Pancras. Today it has been transformed into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre.

With the bookstacks in the central courtyard of the museum empty, the process of demolition for Lord Foster's glass-roofed Great Court could begin. The Great Court, opened in 2000, while undoubtedly improving circulation around the museum, was criticised for having a lack of exhibition space at a time when the museum was in serious financial difficulties and many galleries were closed to the public. At the same time the African collections that had been temporarily housed in 6 Burlington Gardens were given a new gallery in the North Wing funded by the Sainsbury family – with the donation valued at £25 million.[40]

As part of its very large website, the museum has the largest online database of objects in the collection of any museum in the world, with 2,000,000 individual object entries, 650,000 of them illustrated, online at the start of 2012.[41] There is also a "Highlights" database with longer entries on over 4,000 objects, and several specialised online research catalogues and online journals (all free to access).[42] In 2013 the museum's website received 19.5 millions visits, an increase of 47% from the previous year.[43]

In 2013 the museum received a record 6.7 million visitors, an increase of 20% from the previous year.[43] Popular exhibitions including "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum" and "Ice Age Art" are credited with helping fuel the increase in visitors.[44] Plans were announced in September 2014 to recreate the entire building along with all exhibits in the video game Minecraft in conjunction with members of the public.[45]


The British Museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through a three-year funding agreement. Its head is the director. The British Museum was run from its inception by a 'principal librarian' (when the book collections were still part of the museum), a role that was renamed 'director and principal librarian' in 1898, and 'director' in 1973 (on the separation of the British Library).[46]

A board of 25 trustees (with the director as their accounting officer for the purposes of reporting to Government) is responsible for the general management and control of the museum, in accordance with the British Museum Act 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act 1992.[47] Prior to the 1963 Act, it was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The board was formed on the museum's inception to hold its collections in trust for the nation without actually owning them themselves, and now fulfil a mainly advisory role. Trustee appointments are governed by the regulatory framework set out in the code of practice on public appointments issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.[48]


The Greek Revival façade facing Great Russell Street is a characteristic building of Sir Robert Smirke, with 44 columns in the Ionic order 45 ft (14 m) high, closely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene in Asia Minor. The pediment over the main entrance is decorated by sculptures by Sir Richard Westmacott depicting The Progress of Civilisation, consisting of fifteen allegorical figures, installed in 1852.

The construction commenced around the courtyard with the East Wing (The King's Library) in 1823–1828, followed by the North Wing in 1833–1838, which originally housed among other galleries a reading room, now the Wellcome Gallery. Work was also progressing on the northern half of the West Wing (The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) 1826–1831, with Montagu House demolished in 1842 to make room for the final part of the West Wing, completed in 1846, and the South Wing with its great colonnade, initiated in 1843 and completed in 1847, when the Front Hall and Great Staircase were opened to the public.[49] The museum is faced with Portland stone, but the perimeter walls and other parts of the building were built using Haytor granite from Dartmoor in South Devon, transported via the unique Haytor Granite Tramway.[50]

In 1846 Robert Smirke was replaced as the museum's architect by his brother Sydney Smirke, whose major addition was the Round Reading Room 1854–1857; at 140 feet (43 m) in diameter it was then the second widest dome in the world, the Pantheon in Rome being slightly wider.

The next major addition was the White Wing 1882–1884 added behind the eastern end of the South Front, the architect being Sir John Taylor.

In 1895, Parliament gave the museum trustees a loan of £200,000 to purchase from the Duke of Bedford all 69 houses which backed onto the museum building in the five surrounding streets – Great Russell Street, Montague Street, Montague Place, Bedford Square and Bloomsbury Street.[51] The trustees planned to demolish these houses and to build around the west, north and east sides of the museum new galleries that would completely fill the block on which the museum stands. The architect Sir John James Burnet was petitioned to put forward ambitious long-term plans to extend the building on all three sides. Most of the houses in Montague Place were knocked down a few years after the sale. Of this grand plan only the Edward VII galleries in the centre of the North Front were ever constructed, these were built 1906–14 to the design by J.J. Burnet, and opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1914. They now house the museum's collections of Prints and Drawings and Oriental Antiquities. There was not enough money to put up more new buildings, and so the houses in the other streets are nearly all still standing.

The Duveen Gallery, sited to the west of the Egyptian, Greek & Assyrian sculpture galleries, was designed to house the Elgin Marbles by the American Beaux-Arts architect John Russell Pope. Although completed in 1938, it was hit by a bomb in 1940 and remained semi-derelict for 22 years, before reopening in 1962. Other areas damaged during World War II bombing included: in September 1940 two unexploded bombs hit the Edward VII galleries, the King's Library received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, incendiaries fell on the dome of the Round Reading Room but did little damage; on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941 several incendiaries fell on the south-west corner of the museum, destroying the book stack and 150,000 books in the courtyard and the galleries around the top of the Great Staircase – this damage was not fully repaired until the early 1960s.[52]

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is a covered square at the centre of the British Museum designed by the engineers Buro Happold and the architects Foster and Partners.[53] The Great Court opened in December 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe. The roof is a glass and steel construction, built by an Austrian steelwork company,[54] with 1,656 uniquely shaped panes of glass. At the centre of the Great Court is the Reading Room vacated by the British Library, its functions now moved to St Pancras. The Reading Room is open to any member of the public who wishes to read there.

Today, the British Museum has grown to become one of the largest museums in the world, covering an area of over 92,000 m2 (990,000 sq. ft).[4][not in citation given][55] In addition to 21,600 m2 (232,000 sq. ft)[56] of on-site storage space, and 9,400 m2 (101,000 sq. ft)[56] of external storage space. Altogether the British Museum showcases on public display less than 1%[56] of its entire collection, approximately 50,000 items.[57] There are nearly one hundred galleries open to the public, representing 2 miles (3.2 km) of exhibition space, although the less popular ones have restricted opening times. However, the lack of a large temporary exhibition space has led to the £135 million World Conservation and Exhibition Centre to provide one and to concentrate all the museum's conservation facilities into one Conservation Centre. This project was announced in July 2007, with the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. It was granted planning permission in December 2009 and was completed in time for the Viking exhibition in March 2014.[58][59]

Blythe House in West Kensington is used by the museum for off-site storage of small and medium-sized artefacts, and Franks House in East London is used for storage and work on the "Early Prehistory" – Palaeolithic and Mesolithic – and some other collections.[60]


Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan[edit]

The British Museum houses the world's largest[h] and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities (with over 100,000[61] pieces) outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A collection of immense importance for its range and quality, it includes objects of all periods from virtually every site of importance in Egypt and the Sudan. Together, they illustrate every aspect of the cultures of the Nile Valley (including Nubia), from the PredynasticNeolithic period (c. 10,000 BC) through to the Coptic (Christian) times (12th century AD), a time-span over 11,000 years.

Egyptian antiquities have formed part of the British Museum collection ever since its foundation in 1753 after receiving 160 Egyptian objects[62] from Sir Hans Sloane. After the defeat of the French forces under Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities collected were confiscated by the British army and presented to the British Museum in 1803. These works, which included the famed Rosetta Stone, were the first important group of large sculptures to be acquired by the museum. Thereafter, the UK appointed Henry Salt as consul in Egypt who amassed a huge collection of antiquities, some of which were assembled and transported with great ingenuity by the famous Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni. Most of the antiquities Salt collected were purchased by the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre.

By 1866 the collection consisted of some 10,000 objects. Antiquities from excavations started to come to the museum in the latter part of the 19th century as a result of the work of the Egypt Exploration Fund under the efforts of E.A. Wallis Budge. Over the years more than 11,000 objects came from this source, including pieces from Amarna, Bubastis and Deir el-Bahari. Other organisations and individuals also excavated and donated objects to the British Museum, including Flinders Petrie's Egypt Research Account and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, as well as the Oxford University Expedition to Kawa and Faras in Sudan.

Active support by the museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in important acquisitions throughout the 20th century until changes in antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of policies allowing finds to be exported, although divisions still continue in Sudan. The British Museum conducted its own excavations in Egypt where it received divisions of finds, including Asyut (1907), Mostagedda and Matmar (1920s), Ashmunein (1980s) and sites in Sudan such as Soba, Kawa and the Northern Dongola Reach (1990s). The size of the Egyptian collections now stand at over 110,000 objects.[63]

In autumn 2001 the eight million objects forming the museum's permanent collection were further expanded by the addition of six million objects from the Wendorf Collection of Egyptian and SudanesePrehistory.[64]

Entrance ticket to the British Museum, London 3 March 1790
The re-opened Duveen Gallery, 1980
The main entrance to the museum, with Greek temple style portico, 2007
The Enlightenment Gallery at museum, which formerly held the King's Library, 2007
Proposed British Museum Extension, 1906
External view of the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre at the museum, 2015

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