Happy Birthday to a Great Museum
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2013
Being a Yank, and in the U.S. Eastern time zone, I am a little late to the party. But today’s the birthday of one of the world’s greatest museums, in London, and it’s the 260th, if I have my math right. Here’s what I wrote about the great event in my book The Species Seekers:
The British Museum had been founded in 1753, largely based on the collections of the virtuoso par excellence, Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane, a London physician and naturalist, had acquired thousands of specimens, from tiny invertebrates on up to elephant tusks, often describing them in meticulous scientific detail. In death, he gave his carefully chosen trustees the task of making the nation take charge of the collection—and pay a high price for the privilege.
“He valued it at fourscore thousand,” Horace Walpole, who was one of the trustees, carped to a friend, “and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese! It is a rent-charge to keep the foetuses in spirit! You may believe that those who think money the most valuable of all curiosities will not be purchasers.”
But the trustees shrewdly threatened to sell the collection abroad, and nature mattered enough to national pride that Parliament soon agreed to a £20,000 purchase price, establishing the museum in House,an elegant seventeenth-century mansion in the heart of London. Sloane’s bequest would in time give rise not just to the British Museum, but to the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London. It was a handsome legacy, though perhaps secondary to the result of a collecting trip in Jamaica, on which he also invented chocolate milk.
But time is harsh and memory mostly fickle. In the first part of the nineteenth century, 70 years after Sloane’s death, Bloomsbury was one of London’s more fashionable neighborhoods. The Bloomsburians liked to promenade in the handsome gardens on the north side of Montagu House. And William Leach seems to have taken equal pleasure in annoying them. “He despised the taxidermy of Sir Hans Sloane’s age, and made periodical bonfires of Sloanian specimens,” Edward Edwards wrote, in his 1870 Lives of the Founders of the British Museum. “These he was wont to call his ‘cremations.’” Unfortunately for his neighbors, “the attraction of the terraces and the fragrance of the shrubberies were sadly lessened when a pungent odour of burning snakes was their accompaniment.”
The taxidermy of the Sloane bequest was probably no worse than in other natural history collections of its day. Rot, insects, careless handling, and other hazards were the common fate of specimens everywhere. Even as Parliament was voting to purchase new specimens in 1823, a writer complained in the Edinburgh Review that those the British Museum already owned were “mouldering or blackening in the crypts of Montagu House, the tomb or charnel-house of unknown treasures,” where moths and beetles were “busily employed amid the splendours of exotic plumage, or roaring through the fur of animals.”