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15 January 2009

On this day in history: The British Museum opened to the public, 1759

Over the course of his life the physician and president of the Royal Society Sir Hans Sloane built up a large collection of books, natural specimens, antiquities and other curiosities. Some of these he collected himself, starting with his voyage to Jamaica; others he received from friends. He also bought other collections to add to his own, which he made available to learned visitors.

In 1753 Sloane died and as part of his will he bequeathed his collection to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his daughters. Since he wanted the collection to be kept together, if the King showed no interest then the collection would be offered to other centres of learning abroad under the same conditions. While George II showed indifference to the proposal, a number of Members of Parliament - led by the Speaker, Arthur Onslow - were interested in aquiring the collection on behalf of the nation.

After Sloane's former curator valued the collection at between £80,000 to £100,000, Parliament passed an act in July of that year establishing the British Museum. The act enabled them to purchase the collection with money raised by a public lottery. To Sloane's collection they added the Cotton collection of manuscripts, which he bequeathed to the nation in 1700, and the Harleian collection of manuscripts, which they bought for £10,000. In 1757, the King donated the 'Old Royal Library' to the Museum.

On 15th January 1759, the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. The seventeenth-century mansion Montagu House, in the Bloomsbury district of London, housed the collection on the site of the present buildings. Parliament appointed a Board of Trustees to administer the collection, which the public could now view for free.

The British Museum's website includes a number of pages about its history.