Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Wonders of the British Museum

Almost every day I walk past the British Museum on the way to the History Today offices. I long lost count of the number of times I have stepped through its doors with family and friends, or just killing time in the most civilised way imaginable, always learning something new. Familiarity does not breed contempt. It is simply the finest museum of its kind in the world, and one that has largely resisted the patronising palaver of lesser establishments. Today is the 250th anniversary of its opening, a moment worthy of wild celebration. Anyone who happens to be in the vicinity this afternoon might wish to head to the Enlightenment Gallery, for a celebration of the life and work of the BM’s founder Sir Hans Sloane, at 2.30pm and 6pm.

1759 was an extraordinary year for Britain, an annus mirabilus recounted in Frank McLynn’s study 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World (Cape). Edward Hawke’s victory over the French at Quiberon Bay was arguably the key encounter, giving Britain complete command of the sea to act against the colonies of first France then Spain. The Americas, the Caribbean, India and the Pacific were open to British forces. But military endeavour and trade was accompanied by a remarkable curiosity to which the British Museum is testimony.

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