Museums are places where people can learn about history, culture, art and the natural world. They are often the first point of contact for tourists, students, artists and researchers. They provide a rich and diverse insight into the past, enabling visitors to gain a deeper understanding of events, wonders and tragedies that have shaped humankind’s history.
Historically, museums have primarily focused on collecting, preserving, researching and displaying objects. However, the last 50 years have seen a shift in the way museums operate, with a greater emphasis on exhibitions, interpretation and learning.
The British Museum, which opened in 1759, is the oldest independent museum in the world and houses an extraordinary collection of works, including a Rosetta Stone; the Aztec turquoise double-headed serpent; and a 600-year-old bust of Ooni, leader of the West African kingdom of Ife.
At the time of its opening, the British Museum was considered a royal establishment. Only “learned gentlemen” were admitted to the building, and access was governed by royal court protocol and aristocratic etiquette.
Although the Museum began with a modest collection of European paintings, it quickly grew to include sculpture and other works from around the world. In the early 1890s, the Museum acquired a large selection of Cypriot pottery from the Metropolitan Museum and works by Etruscan, Roman and South Italian potters.
In addition, the Museum benefited from a series of major gifts over the years, allowing it to acquire important works of art that established its reputation for collecting classical antiquities. These purchases included the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot art, as well as a number of works by the American artist John Kensett.
Over the years, the Museum’s collections have grown significantly under the leadership of several distinguished directors, including David Franklin (Class of 1915), Ernest DeWald (Graduate School Class of 1946), Fred Bidwell and William M. Milliken.
As director of the Museum, DeWald led the institution into a significant commitment to art conservation. During his tenure, the Museum purchased new paintings for the collection, including a rare 17th-century painting of a horseman by Johannes Vermeer.
The Museum’s collection of Asian art grew under the guidance of Professor Wen C. Fong, Class of 1951, as did its African and contemporary art collections.
In addition to these important collections, the Museum also hosts a diverse array of public programs, exhibitions and workshops. It is an essential resource for scholars and the general public and has a reputation for presenting innovative and engaging exhibits.