The British Museum, A History

Published in 2002 to mark the 250th anniversary (in 2003) of the British Museum, The British Museum, A History is a history of the institution told by a former Director of the Museum, David M. Wilson.

Much of the focus of the book is on the first 150 years from the origins of the collection and the twisting path the Museum has taken to grow into the towering presence we know today. The careers and personalities of the Directors and curatorial staff in this period are presented in great detail, as at that time there were not so many of them so as to make it impractical, and a sense of their influence of the development of the Museum is vividly created. Donations and purchases of some of the most significant objects in the Museum are also covered in detail, showing how the collection came to be assembled; often by luck, accident or opportunism and only occasionally (more so in the last 50 years) by deliberate policy.

The 20th century is dealt with a bit more briskly. The impact of the wars is discussed and especially the long shadow of WWII; some galleries weren’t completely repaired until the 1980s or 1990s. There is discussion of the structure and organization of the Museum trustees and employees. It’s an organization that has evolved rather than been planned. Decisions about organizational structure have often been made in response to specific events and constrained by tight, inadequate budgets, which leads inevitably to problems that have to be addressed later down the line.

What was most interesting to me is the relative youth of the academic study of history, art history and archaeology. Wilson talks about the need for the Museum to develop expertise in these areas as they were not taught by the universities. It was a bit of a revelation to me that art history wasn’t even a thing until the 1920s.

This book is probably only for fans of the Museum and appears to be out of print now, but I enjoyed it. It’s been on my ‘books to read’ shelf for about twenty years (it’s a large, heavy, not at all portable hardback) so I’m pleased I finally got round to reading it.

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