The British Museum
As one advances on the British Museum, one may feel calmed bf the welcome of its giant portico, and by the terrace amongst the columns where the readers from the Reading Room walk up and down, pacing, giving a most convincing interpretation very often of their role of profound readers in the British Museum Reading Room lost in profound thought and having a quick drag at a cigarette before returning to their desks. Any such calm is likely, according to my own experience, to be shattered, the moment you arc through the revolving doors and into the huge high hall. Even when, as I usually am, bent on some particular errand in the B.M., my first steps inside waver in an agonv of indecision, and I am overcome by sheer cmbarras de richcsscs, and manifest all the uneasy symptoms of a grasshopper mind.
The beginnings of this mammoth institution lie in the acquisitive habits, aided by considerable wealth, of the fashionable Chelsea physician, Sir Hans Sloanc. He bequeathed his collection to the nation, subject to a payment of £20,000 (considerably less than it was worth). The nation took up the offer, passed an act of Parliament in 1753, and appointed a body of Trustees to take charge of Sloanc’s collection and also of the famous Cottonian Library; the Trustees were further empowered to buy much of another famous library, formed by the Harleys, Earls of Oxford. In 1757, George II handed over the Royal Library, which brought with it the privilege of compulsory copyright deposit, which still holds good meaning that a copy of every book published in Britain has to be deposited by the publisher free with the B.M. An excellent policy, but one that brings now its embarrassments, for the average intake of books (from all sources) per annum demands more than a mile of shelving space.
From these beginnings the collection grew and grew, and still they grow; in the early days in Montague House, public admission was, by modern standards, quaint. By ticket only to gentlemen virtuosi, but by 1810 a ticket was available to “any person of decent appearance who may apply” three days a week.
Montague House gradually dissolved into the present building, the facade of which was finished by 1837, though internal development proceeded for many years after. In 1881 the natural history collections (Sloane’s special interest) were separated out and transferred to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, thus gaining valuable space in Bloomsbury for the remainder.
But not nearly enough, and now what was once, as Sloanc described it, a private cabinet of curiosities and a chamber of rarities, is bursting at the seams, even though a more recent annex has been founded at Colindale to take such things as newspapers. The next move will be to detach the national library from the natkma! museum; at present the B.M. houses bothand is the only great institution of comparable importance in the world to attempt to do so; though there will be sadness when the great domed Reading Room ceases to be as such, the services provided by the Library will surely be greatly facilitated.
The functions of the British Museum arc summarised stringently by the official guide May be (caution at once creeps in) may be described as the advancement of learning by the provision of materials and facilities for research, and by the encouragement of the study of literature, history, archaeology and art.
Public use of the collections is afforded by the Reading Rooms and services in the Library Departments; by Students’ Rooms in other Departments; by exhibition of select material in the Public Galleries; by the publication of catalogues, guide books, and reproductions; by photographic services; and by information given in response to personal inquiry.
Much of the collection is indeed off display not from any avarice on the part of the authorities, but because the nature of the objects is against display. To consult the hidden parts of the iceberg, the visitor has to assume the port and serious demeanour of the Student, and make an appointment (telephone saves time) or acquire a student’s ticket; the latter procedure involves time (for the Reading Room of the Library and the Department of Prints and Drawings), but may be circumvented by the simple and public spirited act of subscribing to the National Art
Collections Fund, upon the presentation of whose mrm card you will be admitted both to the Reading Room and the Students’ Room of the Print and Drawing.