British Museum, a national depository of science, literature, and art, which owes its origin to the will of Sir Hans Sloane, who died in 1753, and bequeathed to the nation his collection of medals and coins, antiquities, seals, cameos, drawings and pictures, and his library, consisting of 50,000 volumes and manuscripts, on the condition of the payment to his heirs of £20,000, being less than half its cost. Parliament accepted this condition, by an act passed in June, 1753, and directed that the Oottonian library, a collection of historical documents made by Sir Robert Cotton during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., which had been acquired by government in the reign of Queen Anne, should be added to the Sloane collection, together with a library of about 2,000 printed volumes, called Major Arthur Edward's library, which had existed as an appendage to the Oottonian library since 1738. The book department of the British museum was still further increased by the purchase, for £10,000, of the Harleian library of manuscripts, a collection of about 7,600 volumes of rolls, charters, and other historical documents, which had been accumulated by Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and his son and successor, Edward Harley. The act of parliament for founding the museum authorized a lottery of £100,000, out of which £10,250 were expended for Montague house with its gardens of 7 1/2 acres, £12,873 were laid out in repairs, and £30,000 were set apart as a fund for the payment of salaries (which at first were moderate), taxes, and other expenses.
The collection has since been increased by the munificence of successive parliaments, and by gifts, bequests, and copyrights, until it constitutes a national institution unrivalled in variety and extent by any similar one in the world. It is situated. in Great Russell street, Bloomsbury, London. From the rapid increase of the various collections a more commodious structure became necessary. The present edifice, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, was commenced in 1823, and completed by his younger brother, Sidney Smirke; and in 1845 Montague house was levelled with the ground, and the new portico was finished April 19, 1847. According to the report of the commissioners appointed in 1847- 8, to examine into its constitution and government, the buildings alone had cost since 1823 nearly £700,000. The reading room, completed in 1857, cost £150,000 more. It is circular, surmounted by a dome 106 ft. high and 140 ft. in diameter, being one foot more than that of St. Peter's, and two feet less than that of the Pantheon; it can accommodate 300 readers, each having a separate desk.
The entire public expenditure for the maintenance of the institution, and for the purchase of the various collections, from 1755 to 1858, was more than £1,500,000; in addition to which there have been numerous bequests from private individuals. - The museum consists of seven departments: manuscripts, printed books, antiquities, prints and drawings, mineralogy and geology, zoology, and botany; to which should be added the reading room. All of these departments are under separate keepers, to whom and their assistants and subordinates the business of the museum is intrusted. The library occupies the ground floor of the present building, filling 25 spacious departments and galleries, one of which measures 300 ft. in length. In July, 1838, the volumes of printed books, being counted one by one as they stood upon the shelves, were found to be in round numbers 235,000. Counted in the same manner in December, 1849, they were found to amount to 435,000. In May, 1851, they amounted to 460,000, and in July, 1853, to 510,110. In 1860 the number of printed volumes was estimated to be nearly 700,000; and as they increase at the rate of 20,000 a year, the number must now considerably exceed 1,000,000, not counting separate parts and pamphlets.
There are 40,000 volumes of manuscripts, exclusive of more than 20,000 original rolls, charters, and deeds. There is also a collection of pamphlets exceeding 200,000 in number, illustrative of English and French history, and a series of newspapers going back to the first appearance of these publications early in the 17th century. The museum contains twice as many books relating to American history as are to be found in any library in the United States. The collection of Hebrew books is the largest in the world. As a whole, the library of the British museum is inferior only to the national library at Paris. The manuscript collections are deposited in four rooms, situate at the southern extremity of the east wing, adjoining Great Russell street. These collections, which have been pronounced to be the most numerous and in some respects the finest in the world, are 11 in number, several of which once belonged to the private libraries of men eminent in rank, and of refined taste and culture. They are as follows: Sloane, acquired in 1753, containing 4,100 volumes; Cottonian, 900 volumes; Harleian, 7,639 volumes; Royal, 1,950 volumes; Lansdowne, in 1807, 1,245 volumes; Hargrave, in 1813, 499 volumes; Burnev, in 1817, 524 volumes;- King's, in 1823, 438" volumes; Egerton, in 1829, about 2,000 volumes; Arundel, in 1831, 550 volumes; additional, about 5,000 volumes.
The progress of the printed collections will be best understood from the following brief chronological summary of the more important donations and purchases, made since the foundation of the library in 1753: 1759, a collection of Hebrew books, 180 volumes, presented by Solomon da Costa; 1762, a unique collection of tracts, published 1640-'60, consisting of about 30,000 articles, presented by George III.; 1766, a collection, rich in biography, bequeathed by the Rev. Dr. Birch; 1768, a collection of Bibles, bequeathed by Arthur Onslow; 1786, a collection of classical authors, 900 volumes, bequeathed by Mr. Tyr-whitt; 1799, a collection of rare editions of the classics and of Italian authors, 4,500 volumes, bequeathed by the Rev. Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode; 1815, Dr. Burney's collection of books on music, purchased; a collection of books belonging to Baron de Moll, 20,000 volumes, purchased at Munich; 1818, Dr. Burney's library of printed books, valued at 9,000 guineas purchased by a special parliamentary grant; 1820, a splendid library, rich in scientific'journals and books on natural history, 16,000 volumes, bequeathed by Sir Joseph Banks; 1823, the magnificent library formed by George III., at a cost of £130,000, amounting to about 80,000 volumes, presented by George IV.; 1847, a collection of the Chinese books of Robert Morrison, in 11,500 volumes, presented by the secretary of state for the foreign department; 1847, the library of Thomas Grenvnle, 20,240 volumes, collected at a cost of upward of £54,000, bequeathed in 1846, and removed to the museum in 1847; 1848, a collection of Hebrew works formed by H. J. Michael of Hamburg, 4,420 volumes, purchased.
Among many rare treasures of the Grenville library may be mentioned the Mentz Latin Bible, commonly called the Mazarin Bible, by Gutenberg and Faust, about 1455, 2 vols., vellum; the first printed Psalter, in Latin, by Faust and Schoffer, 1457, being the first book printed with a date; the unique copy, on vellum, of the first edition of Livy, by Schwein-heim and Pannartz, 1469 (purchased at Mr. Edwards's sale in 1815, for 860 guineas); the first edition of Ovid, by Azzoguidi; a copy of the Aldine Virgil of 1501, the first book printed in Italic type, and the earliest attempt to produce cheap books; a first Shakespeare, one of the finest known, 1623; and a beautiful series of early editions of the Orlando furioso. - The collection of antiquities consists of the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities, the former including the trophies of the Egyptian expedition, of 1801; the Elgin marbles, purchased for £35,000; the Phigalian marbles, purchased for £19,000; the Townley marbles, purchased for £28,200; the marbles from Halicarnassus, brought from Budrun in Asia Minor, 1846-'58, and bass reliefs which originally belonged to the mausoleum erected by Artemisia, queen of Caria, in honor of her husband, King Mausolus; there is also a colossal statue supposed to be that of Mausolus himself, broken into 65 pieces, which have been reunited; a portion of the Far-nese marbles, bought in 1864 from the ex-king of Naples for £4,000; Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek and Etruscan vases, among which is the celebrated Portland vase, which was in 1845 broken in pieces by a lunatic, but has been wonderfully restored; Mr. Richard Payne Knight's collection of coins and medals; and many other works of ancient and modern art.
Garrick (whose collection of old English plays is in the library) bequeathed to the museum a statue of Shakespeare which was executed for him by Roubiliac. The world-wide celebrity of the museum is not a little due to the remarkable array of works of art. They have contributed powerfully in facilitating and stimulating the study of the great models of antiquity, especially the Elgin marbles, which are the most perfect specimens of the art of Phidias. The most recent contributions to the department of antiquities are the collections from the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, by Mr. Layard, Col. Rawlinson, Mr. Loftus, and Mr. Rassam. - The collection of natural history is inferior only to that of the museum in Paris. Among the curiosities is the stuffed skin and skeleton of a gorilla, nearly 6 ft. high, shot in Africa by Du Chaillu, which had before been exhibited in the United States; it is the largest known specimen of the largest species of the quadrumana. There is also a foot of the dodo, a bird now known only by a few scanty fragments, and a single picture said to have been painted from life. - In the department of mineralogy and geology is a fine collection of meteoric stones, arranged in chronological order; the oldest, weighing 270 lbs., fell at Ensisheim in Alsace in 1492. There is a metallic block from Buenos Ayres, weighing 1,400 lbs., and a meteorite from Melbourne, Australia, weighing 7,000 lbs. - The botanical collection is very large.
Its nucleus was the herbarium of Sir Hans Sloane, which consisted of about 8,000 species, bound in 262 volumes; to this in 1820 was added the magnificent herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks. It includes also the putch Hortus Cliffortianus, with descriptions by Linnaeus, and Burmann's Ceylon plants; and in 1860 was added by purchase the herbarium of Prof. Nuttall, containing 10,000 species, especially valuable from its extraordinary number of typical plants. - The government of the museum is vested in a board of trustees, 48 in number, of whom 1 is named directly by the crown, 23 are official, 9 are named by the representatives or executors of parties who have been donors to the institution, and 15 are elected. The catalogue, which is in manuscript, is drawn up on a uniform plan, and when completed will probably extend to 1,500 or 2,000 volumes. Under the galleries are book presses filled with a large library of reference for the use of readers, comprising most of the standard works on the various branches of learning, and an extensive collection of dictionaries of all languages, biographical works, encyclopaedias, parliamentary histories, topographical works, etc. These books can be consulted at pleasure without the usual formalities of the ticket system.
Access to the reading room may be obtained by written application to the librarian. Tickets are issued for six months, and at the expiration of this term fresh application is to be made for a renewal. No person can be admitted without a ticket, and the tickets are not transferable. All the buildings of the museum are closed between the 1st and 7th of January, the 1st and 7th of May, and the 1st and 7th of September; also on Sundays, fast days, and holidays. The whole establishment is open to public view on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 9 till 4 during November, December, January, and February; from 10 till 5 during March, April, September, and October; and from 10 till 6 during May, June, July, and August. The reading room is open daily, with the above exceptions, seven hours in the winter, eight hours in the spring and autumn, and nine hours in the summer. Artists are admitted to study in the galleries of sculpture between 9 A. M. and 4 P. M., every week day, except Saturdays. The print room is also closed on Saturdays.