Andrea here, due to a family health issue, I’m posting an “oldie but goodie” past blog today in which I’m musing on two of my favorite subjects: libraries and museums. And as it so happens, the British Museum in London—an amazingly wonderful institution that always makes my heart go pitty-pat—has a fascinating story in its history that combines the two!
It all begins with Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his vast collections of “interesting stuff” (a true cabinet of curiosities of 71,000 items—you can see one of the drawers to the right) to King George II and the country in return for £20,000, to be given to heirs. The items included books, coins, prints, drawing and ethnographic artifacts. By an act of parliament, the gift was accepted and established as the British Museum in 1753. It was the first national public museum in the world, and admission was free to “all studious and curious persons.”
Now, not to be outdone, George II followed suit by donating the “Old Royal Library,” which consisted of books collected by the past sovereigns of England and royal manuscripts, to the museum in 1757. In 1759, the British Museum opened to the public, its array of items housed Montagu House, a 17th century mansion that once stood on the site of the current museum.
It quickly became a very popular attraction for Londoners as well as visitors. (How many of us authors have set a scene there!) From Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts to exotic natural history displays and fine art, it showcased wonders from around the world. And of course there were the marvelous books. By the early 1816, it had acquired such historic treasures as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (commonly called Lord Elgin’s Marbles . . . but that’s a whole other story.)
Books were also a passion of George II’s grandson, George III. As his father had given away the Old Royal Library, George III set about collecting a new trove of royal bibliographic treasures. Now, between the American Revolution and his bouts of madness, George III gets a bad rap in the U.S. but his scholarly interests are well-documented.
His first major acquisition was the 6,000 volume library of Joseph Smith in 1763, which included 262 incunabula (books printed before 1501). Starting in 1766, George II spent around £1,500 per year on books, and even when he lapsed into his bouts of madness, the purchases were made by his trustees to keep the collection growing.
It was open to anyone with “a genuine scholarly purpose—John Adams and Joseph Priestley, one of the leading men of science of his day, were visitors. And Samuel Johnson was one of the literary luminaries who advised the king on acquisitions.
The library was kept is specially-built quarters within Queen’s House (which was later expanded and renovated into Buckingham Palace.) A book bindery was set up in the basement—by 1776 it took up five rooms. The royal style was said to be “fine, but not extravagant.”
When George III died in 1820, it was unclear what would become of the library. (There were questions about whether it was now the private property of George IV or belonged to the Crown.) Given Prinny’s profligacy, it’s not surprising that nasty rumors arose that he was thinking of selling the library to Tsar Alexander for much-needed blunt.
However, any potential battle over custody was avoided when he donated the collection to the British Museum, with the stricture that it be kept together. It wasn’t an altogether altruistic decision—the yearly upkeep ran over £2,000 per year. And in return, he received government help in creating Buckingham Palace, a project near and dear to his heart. (George IV kept 33 books for himself, including a First Folio Shakespeare and a Mainz Psalter.)
The King’s Library was a wonderful addition to the Museum’s collection, adding 65,000 books on a wide range of subjects, including geology and theology, along with such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible and Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (but no works of Jane Austen!)
Space was now needed to house all the volumes, and in 1823, the museum built a neoclassical extension, and the library was put in the east wing.. It wasn’t until 1970s that the King’s Library was formally given to the British Library and transferred to the institution’s new building, where the reading public is still allowed access to it. Its original space in the British Museum has been reorganized with a permanent exhibition called Enlightenment—Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. (all prints courtesy of wikicommons; all photos by the author.)
I love that the King’s Library was part of both of my favorite worlds—libraries and museums! So, do you have a favorite library or museum?