The British Museum was the first collection of Anitiquies assembled for public enjoyment. It all began because of one avid collector, who amassed a treasure-house of objects.
Sir Hans Sloane was an inveterate collector, as well as a physician and scientist. Born in Ireland in 1660 he showed an early interest in botany and studied chemistry at Apothecaries Hall in London before touring France to learn medicine.
It was during travels to Jamacia as a physician to the island’s that he began collecting and cataloguing flora and fauna. He returned home laden down with copius notes and trunks full of treasures, as well as a recipe for a health tonic called milk chocolate.
By the time he died he had acquired so much stuff, such as books, plants, coins, anitiques, gemstones and oddities like a mummified finger – that his home had to employ a full-time curator. The collection was offered to the nation for £20.000 and the British Museum opened in Bloomsbury in 1759.
Over the next century it acquired treasures that are still on the top 10 of exhibits for visitors today such as – the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, head of Ramesses, and sculptures from the temple of Apollo and Halikasnassos. Sloane’s vast flora and fora collections later became the cornerstone of the Natural History Museum which opened in South Kensington in 1881.
Early visitors had much more chance to get close to earlier exhibits and this led to a few unfortunate incidents, notably the smashing of the priceless Portland Vase in 1845 when a drunk hurled a persepolitan sculpture at its glass case. The vase has been painstakingly restored, but at clloser inspection you may spot evidence of Victorian Vandalism.