Sir Hans Sloane, a British physician and naturalist just didn’t want to see his lifetime collection go to waste after he passed away, so he found an original solution. In his will he bequeathed his collection to King George II, on the condition that 20,000 pounds were paid to his heirs. Luckily King George II accepted the offer, and the British Museum was established.
It was only natural that as a naturalist, Sloane’s collection contained hundreds of volumes of dried plants. But Sloane’s vast collection was much more than that. It consisted of over 70,000 objects, including 40,000 books, thousands of manuscripts and antiquities from around the world. By the way, Hans Sloane deserves our gratitude not only for the establishment of the British Museum. While visiting Jamaica, he tried a popular drink among the locals, which consisted of cocoa and water. Disgusted by its flavor, he decided to mix it with milk instead. Quite content with the results, he brought his recipe with him after returning to England, where it began spreading as a medicine. So the next time you visit the British Museum, or sip your cocoa drink, give a nod of acknowledgment to this great man.
But let’s return to the museum. Sloane’s collection, along with the Cottonian Library (assembled by Sir Robert Cotton), the Harleian Library and the Royal Library were the nucleus of the newly founded museum. The Montagu House, a 17th century mansion in Bloomsbury, London was chosen as the first home of the museum. The museum formally opened its doors in 1759.
Towards the end of the 18th century countless objects from unknown lands were brought by Captain James Cook and other British explorers from their intrepid voyages around the world. These objects were put on display and caused the museum’s popularity to skyrocket. Soon the Montagu House proved to be too small for the growing crowds.
In the beginning of the 19th century, after the battle of the Nile in 1801, the museum’s collection of Egyptian antiquities grew dramatically, both from donations and acquisitions. Greek and Roman sculptures were also added to the collection. Some of them, such as the sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens, remain highly controversial to this day.
In 1823 the neoclassical architect Sir Robert Smirke was commissioned to plan a new home for the museum. That same year the Montagu House was demolished and the construction of the new building began, taking almost a quarter of a century to complete.
From the 1840’s the museum began promoting explorations overseas, mostly in various territories in Asia. These excavations proved to be extremely successful and led, among others, to the discovery of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos and the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, two of the seven wonders of the ancient world.