Regency Bicentennial:   The British Museum Discovers Britain

Well, it was not exactly the country that the officials of the British Museum discovered. They had always known where it was. But for more than half a century, they had mostly ignored its stuff. The British Museum was founded in the mid-eighteenth century, just as Britain was embarking on a long period of world exploration. Much of the material which was acquired during those expeditions made its way to the British Museum. And so it was that for more than fifty years, familiarity was breeding contempt within the walls of Montague House when it came to the objects representing the natural history of Britain in the national musuem.

When the natural history of the British Isles caught the attention of the British Museum . . .

The British Museum holds the distinction of being the first-ever national museum in the world. It was created by an Act of Parliament in 1753, in response to the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, the eminent collector and naturalist, who wanted his massive collections to become the property of the nation. Montague House, in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, was purchased to house the collection a few years later. The British Museum first opened to the public in January of 1759.

From the late 1760s, the voyages of Captain Cook initiated the last great age of European sea exploration. Many of those voyages originated in Britain, and much of the significant material which was acquired during those voyages became the property of the nation. Since the Admiralty and the Royal Navy were closely involved with a number of these voyages, most of the objects acquired by members of the crew were considered government property. In most cases, that material was deposited in the British Museum. There were also many instances when civilian explorers who traveled on board those ships of discovery eventually donated the bulk of their own collections to the British Museum as well. These collections of objects from exotic and faraway places were very popular, both with the museum’s keepers and with the public. They were considered much more interesting, and certainly more glamorous than the natural history materials of the British Isles.

An essential change in collecting philosophies occurred at the British Museum in 1816. In February of that year, the natural history collection of George Montagu became available. Montagu was a British army officer who had become a devoted student of the natural history of Britain, with a focus on the fauna in the region of his home, in Devonshire. Montagu’s collections included not only many birds, but also fish and other sea creatures and was considered the most complete collection of its kind in the country. Montagu had died unexpectedly the previous year and his family offered his entire collection to the government for £1200.

Sir Joseph Banks, one of the most influential trustees of the British Museum and Dr. William Elford Leach, who held the title of Assistant Librarian at the British Museum, both lobbied diligently for the purchase of George Montagu’s collections. The men had worked closely together to expand and improve the Museum’s holdings and were eager to develop a comprehensive collection of British materials for the national museum. Both men were aware that Montagu’s collection would fill a large gap in the Museum’s existing holdings, which to that point, had little material relating to the natural history of Britain itself. The fund for the acquisition of new material was low at that time, and there was some resistance to the purchase on the part of may of the other trustees. An avid zoologist and collector, Dr. Leach had a significant and complementary collection of British fauna of his own, which was valued at about £600. He offered to donate his collection to the British Museum, if the trustees would approve the purchase of the Montagu collection. Dr. Leach’s offer apparently appealed to the Museum trustees, and they voted to purchase the Montague collection. The final price was set at £1100, paid to Montagu’s family in installments, over the course of three years.

At about this same time, the growing ornithology collection was moved to a larger room in Montague House, and Dr. Leach and Sir Joseph were able to gain the approval of the trustees to turn the former Bird Room into a gallery for the display of British natural history objects. In August of 1816, another important British collection was offered to the Museum. James Francis Stephens, a Victualling Officer working for the Admiralty, and a keen etymologist, learned that the British Museum was building a British natural history collection. Stephens was aware that many of the insects in his extensive collection were not represented in the holdings of the British Museum. He contacted Dr. Leach, who was eager to accept Stephen’s gift. Not an etymologist himself, Dr. Leach arranged for the trustees of the British Museum to apply to the Admiralty to request that James Stephens be given an extended leave so that he could review his insect collections to select those specimens which should be transferred to the British Museum. The Admiralty granted the trustees’ request, and James Stephens spent the next several weeks sorting through his vast collections to provide the British Museum with the most comprehensive collection of insects of the British Isles.

All of these British natural history collections coming to the museum in such a short period of time seems to have inspired Dr. Leach to make his own effort to expand the natural history holdings. A keen zoologist, Dr. Leach, a man of independent means, requested a leave of absence from the Museum in November of 1816. He wished to go on an extended tour of the British Isles, seeking " . . . peculiar Species of Zoology," explaining that he intended to pay special attention to the regions along the coasts. The trustees reluctantly granted Leach’s request, despite the fact that he would be funding his expedition himself. They were concerned that the loss of his considerable expertise for an extended period would delay the cataloging of the new collections. In the end, Dr. Leach’s zoological tour of Britain took more than three months longer than he had originally estimated. When one of the trustees wrote to him, urging his return, he responded with a request for three more weeks of leave. Dr. Leach returned to his post as Assistant Librarian at the British Museum early in 1817. He immediately turned his attention to cataloging the now extensive British natural history collections and preparing them for display in the former Bird Room at Montague House.

And so it was that the year 1816 became an important period in the development and expansion of the indigenous natural history collections of the British Museum. It was almost as if, with the offer of George Montagu’s collection, the trustees and keepers suddenly woke up to the fact that the national museum of Britain had a woefully inadequate collection of the natural history materials of their own nation. By year’s end, with the acquisition of the collections of George Montagu, James Stephens and Dr. William Leach, the natural history holdings of the British Museum were significantly expanded. During that year, gifts of smaller collections of British natural history specimens were also made to the museum. By the time the former Bird Room at Montague House was transformed into the gallery for the display of the natural history materials of the British Isles, Dr. Leach found he had more objects than he had space to display them. The new British natural history room at the British Museum opened late in 1817.

Perhaps British pride at the final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo the previous year may have brought the appreciation of British natural history to the forefront in the minds of her citizens. It is clear that the exotic and glamorous objects from foreign parts were no longer the most popular displays at the Museum. Certainly, the Elgin Marbles, which were also acquired in 1816, would become a popular exhibit at the British Museum when they went on display in January of 1817. But by all reports, the new British natural history gallery was also popular with many visitors to the Museum.

Dear Regency Authors, might this focus on the natural history of the British Isles by the British Museum find a place in one of your upcoming novels? Could it be that the heroine is an avid naturalist and wishes to offer her collection of British natural history to the British Museum when she learns they are developing their collections of indigenous materials? Perhaps the hero is a gentleman naturalist who is asked by the trustees of the Museum to inspect the collection in anticipation of the gift, unaware the collector is a lady? Will they find love among the natural history specimens? Then again, might the villain try to steal a large private collection of British natural history specimens, hoping to capitalize on the new interest to sell them at a high price to the British Museum? How might he, or she, be caught out, and how will that bring the heroine and the hero together?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The British Museum Discovers Britain

  1. the sudden side-plot bunny that leaps to mind is when the prosy one of the heroine’s suitors is haranguing her and her young siblings – she must have siblings – and is telling them all wrong, and it determines her NOT to marry him even for a comfortable life for her sibs. And the more knowledgeable but less eligible batchelor will sweep them off with fun but accurate adventure stories

  2. Pingback: 1816:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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