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( Originally Published 1913 )
When in the eighteenth century the English nation found itself in possession of several important private collections of books and carefully accumulated manuscripts, it became necessary to provide a suitable place for them and the British Museum was founded. In order to understand the value and extent of its possessions, some brief consideration of the collections themselves is necessary.
Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) early manifested a fondness for collecting manuscripts and rare books. So firmly was his reputation as a trustworthy antiquarian established that when Queen Elizabeth and the King of Spain were about to negotiate a treaty and the delicate question of whose ambassadors should be given the preference arose, he was appointed by the realm to make diligent research and the proofs he submitted-to the effect that to the English diplomats preference belonged-were accepted without question. From this time forward, he was constantly involved in matters of state, and the quiet, peaceful life among his well loved books had to be largely set aside for the less welcome and more exacting duties of the statesman. At last, unluckily, he fell under the suspicion of the court, and during the tumultuous reign of Charles I, was imprisoned, his library being closed by royal seals. Even when released, access to this library was denied until just before his death-hastened beyond doubt by his grief for his treasured books. The library was restored to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton and descended in line to Sir John, who in 1700 presented the magnificent collection to the nation.
English historians have been more indebted to this fine collection of manuscripts than to all other sources. Particularly has the rare accumulation of Saxon charters made possible the reconstruction of the period prior to Norman occupation.
Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, another famous collector, was born in 1661 of stern Puritan stock. His ancestors had taken part in the destruction of early church art in England, acting with excellent intentions in this most reprehensible work. Harley is said by his detractors to have found his library a means of gratifying his pride rather than his love of learning. However that may have been, his son Edward continued the labor his father began and the collection of manuscripts became famed for its completeness and choice parchments. At the death of Edward Harley the library included about fifty thousand printed volumes, eight thousand volumes of manuscripts, medals, prints, and portraits. All but the manuscripts were allowed to pass into the possession of a dealer for thirteen thousand pounds-less than the bindings of the books would have cost; but the collection of manuscripts was preserved intact and in course of time was purchased by the government for ten thousand pounds, it being stipulated by the Harley heirs that it should be kept together, as an addition to the Cottonian Library.
Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the third of those great collectors whose life work now remains a lasting contribution to England, was born in Ireland. He was educated as a phy sician and shortly after completing his training, was taken by the Duke of Albemarle, then governor-general of Jamaica, to that island as his physician. Here he occupied himself in getting together specimens of the flora of this favored region. When he returned home he carried with him a remarkable botanical collection. To this nucleus he gradually added shells, insects, minerals and ores, curious coins, ornaments from many lands; as well as specimens of literary concern.
In 1748 it so happened that the Prince and Princess of Wales visited his home and were entertained by a display of his remarkable treasures. An account of this visit was pub lished, giving an excellent idea of his private museum. Having described the minerals, ores, coins and ornaments, the narrative continues: "The galley, 110 feet in length, presented a most surprising prospect; the most beautiful corals, crystals and figured stones; the most brilliant butterflies, and other insects, shells painted with as great variety as the precious stones, and feathers of birds vying with gems; here the remains of the Antideluvian world excited the awful idea of the great catastrophe, so many evident testimonies of the truth of Moses' history; the variety of animals shows us the great beauty of all parts of the creation.
"Then a noble vista presented itself through several rooms filled with books, among these many hundred volumes of dried plants; a room full of choice and valuable manuscripts; the noble present sent by the present French king to Sir Hans, of his collections of paintings, medals, statues, palaces, etc., in 25 large atlas volumes; besides other things too many to mention here."
Before his death Sloane provided that his museum with its library of forty thousand volumes and three thousand manuscripts should become the property of the nation upon the pay ment of twenty thousand pounds to his heirs, this amount being, he admitted, less than one-fourth of what it had cost him.
To provide a place adequate for these valuable collections an act was passed in 1753 to the end that there should be founded a British Museum, which was provided and opened to the public in January, 1759. In contrast with the splendid assistance cheerfully supplied the most obscure visitor today in this great Museum, the rules obtaining for the first fifty years supply a startling example of man's power to thwart avowed purposes by much legislation. So much difficulty was put in the way of the visitor that many waited six months and even then were unable to hurriedly scan the interior of the building. Few at best accomplished more than this, for guides were provided for small parties and the time allowed for their visits was short. The mere matter of being able to remember "when the museum was open when it was open," as one writer exclaims, after enumerating the days it was closed, was beyond the scope of the vast majority. Fortunately all this unnecessary difficulty has been eliminated and all commend the efficient and scholarly attention which the Museum today provides for the service of the public.
So many bequests were received and minor purchases made that ere long floor space was insufficient. In 1847 the present building was erected; in 1857 the circular reading-room-the inner court-added; and in 1884, through the substantial bequest of William White, the White Wing built. Yet with such expansion the Museum of Natural History was crowded out and taken to South Kensington.
While it would be wearisome to mention all the valuable bequests that have been added to these already mentioned, the King's Library should be included. This consists of two parts: the first was presented to the nation by George II. and consisted of the royal library accumulated since the days of Henry VII. The other portion included the library gathered together by George III. and presented to the nation for some consideration by his inglorious son, who was with difficulty restrained from sending it away from the country altogether for promised gold. Important, too, is the Grenville Library, comprising twenty-thousand books, presented in 1847. Rare editions of early English books as well as important Latin and Greek copies were thus acquired.
Built in the form of a rectangle with the original court converted into a beautiful reading room and crowned by a dome. a walk through the British Museum is equal to a day's journey. Seventy thousand volumes line the walls of the reading-room. The library includes altogether 2,500,000. There are more than 46 miles of shelving and few libraries in the United States are as complete in American productions as this.
Those who wish to acquire some general idea of the contents of the British Museum rather than browse among its books, find opportunity to survey cases which give informa tion merely for the looking. The evolution of printing from earliest times is completely illustrated. Two departments of manuscripts are maintained: one pertaining to the Occident, the other to the Orient. In the Manuscript Salon and in the Grenville Library are cases displaying such manuscripts as have most general interest. Among Greek parchments is a notable copy of Plato's Phaeson, written in the third century before Christ and one of the earliest Greek manuscripts now existing. The papyrus of Aristotle's Constitution of Athens is here also -the Principal Librarian having given its translation to the world. Two leaves of vellum whereon are inscribed a portion of an oration by Demosthenes may be seen.
Among Latin manuscripts are highly prized copies of Cicero and Juvenal. The only existing manuscript of Beowulf, written in about the year 1,000 came to the British Museum with the Cottonian Collection. In his history of English Literature, Brooks speaks of it in this way: "It is a moment of romantic pleasure when we stand beside the long undiscovered sources of an historic river, beside whose waters a hundred famous cities have arisen. It is a moment of the same romantic pleasure when we first look at the earliest upswelling of the broad river of English poetry, and think of the hundred cities of the imagination that have been built beside its stream."
No other manuscript has had greater import than the Magna Charta, the firm foundation of English liberty.
More attractive in appearance are the illuminated manuscripts of which the Museum has not a few. Seven illustrate the work of the Byzantine School and are with one exception portions of the Bible. The work of the English Schools, as they developed from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries are well exemplified. Specimens of French, German and Italian illuminating may be found, while one delightful case is given over to the illustration of book bindings from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries.
Figures mean little to the average mind, yet some conception of the wealth of this one department may be gained from the statement that fifty thousand volumes of manuscript are in the British Museum together with seventy-five thousand charters and rolls and two thousand papyri.
A case that holds the attention and arouses many historic associations is the one containing royal autographs from the days of Richard II. to the present time. The struggling writer of the present day may take comfort in reading the contract made by Milton with a printer to the effect that he gave up possession of "A poem entitled Paradise Lost" for payment of five pounds, three subsequent payments of the same amount to be forthcoming should it run through so many editions. Certain literary interest is attached to letters of famous peoplenot always perhaps the ones they would have chosen to have thus placed upon exhibition for coming generations.
The Department of Antiquities attracts the majority of people far more than either library or manuscripts. It also had its beginnings in private collections. Sir Henry Hamilton spent considerable time in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius and became enthusiastic in the collection of Greek vases and terracottas. His collection was later purchased by the government for the British Museum for a consideration of about eight thousand five hundred pounds. A very practical result may be cited of the opportunity thus afforded the public to study these antiquities. Josiah Wedgwood copied certain of the vases there exhibited and shortly produced his famous Wedgwood ware which it has been said brought into England several times the amount of money expended for the entire collection.
The beginnings of Egyptian Antiquities, now particularly complete and valuable, were closely linked with European history. It will be remembered that one of Napoleon's cherished plans was to establish French colonies in Egypt. To that end he took thither many French savants for the purpose of studying the ancient monuments which everywhere attracted his attention. A collection of antiques was begun and had reached some importance when the British overcame the French in 1801, taking possession of the country. While the antiques were claimed by the French, the English general regarded them as spoils of war and they were sent to England. This accounts for the presence of the Rosetta Stone here rather than in the Louvre.
In the rooms given over to classical remains are found elucidating specimens from Greece and Rome. The Archaic room -illustrative of the ninth, eighth and seventh centuries before Christ-contains Mycanaean remains. Votives from Crete and Mycenae and early sculptures are here preserved. These show primitive attempts to fashion deities and figures from stone. Often neither feet nor hands were attempted by the sculptor of these remote times.
The Elgin room contains the famous Elgin marbles. So much has been said in disparagement of Elgin's action in obtaining these that it is well to take into consideration the con ditions under which he acted. Sent as ambassador to Turkey, he determined before departing from England that he would try to obtain casts of existing Greek statues for his country. At first permission to have these made in Athens was grudgingly given by the Sublime Porte. However, relations with England became more conducive to favorable consideration of her diplomats and ere long Lord Elgin received permission to "take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures upon them."
For years travelers had carried away as trophies whatever they had found it possible to remove. The Mohammedans had not hesitated to grind statues to powder for the purpose of making mortar; a bomb from a Venetian ship had fallen in the Parthenon, which the Turks were using as a magazine, and had blown the beautiful temple into ruins. Lord Elgin argued that if this condition of affairs continued, two centuries might see entire obliteration of Greek monuments. Granted the justice of this conclusion, all that he later did was logical and consistent. He engaged men to pry metopes from the Parthenon and to loosen such portions of the immortal frieze as he thought practical. Lord Byron wrote a scathing poem regarding his procedure and it is safe to say that every classical student who views the Parthenon shorn of its ornaments, forgets Elgin's provocation and consigns his memory to oblivion. Yet, while these Greek fragments are out of their element under dull English skies, their effect upon those who might never have seen them in their native home should not be forgotten. Keats was inspired by them to intense power and poetic flight. They have beyond question exerted marked influence.
The last three centuries before the Christian era-called the Graeco-Roman in art because of the mingled ideas and conceptions of both countries-show decadence. One of the statues of particular beauty belonging to this period is the Sleeping Endymion.
The Hall of Roman busts, including many of the Roman princes-and the Hall of Greek and Roman inscriptions have special attraction for the classical student.
In addition to its fifty thousand objects of ancient Egyptian life and its classical remains just cited, the collection of Babylonian and Assyrian monuments attracts the lover of history. Alabaster friezes, depicting scenes from every day life, bring the civilization of Mesopotamian countries more vividly hefore us than any descriptive matter can possibly do. Nor are abundant evidences of prehistoric civilization lacking. Here may be seen and studied examples of man's earlier attempts at expression and his growing skill in fashioning weapons, implements, and utensils.
Such a repository of the past has untold value. It portrays history, and fortunate indeed are the students who can be conducted thither to see man's continual journey forward from savagery into broader light and civilization thus vividly illustrated.