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Anglo-Saxon garnets, Greek marbles, and the British Museum

Another thank you to Beautiful Britain for reminding us that on this day in 1759 the British Museum opened to the public. An eccentric entrance system meant that only ten selected persons could enter, leaving many standing at the door. That has changed. Five million visitors walked in last year.



In 1753 Sir Hans Sloane, physician, naturalist and inveterate collector, offers his collection of 71,000 objects, his library, and his herbarium to George II for the nation. A slightly flabbergasted Parliament pays Sloane's heirs £20,000 (a substantial sum at the time), and establishes the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. The mission is to promote universal understanding of science, natural history, and the arts. It is the first museum in the world to be administered by a body of trustees and, in 1759, to become open and free to the public.

Over the years, collections pour into the Museum. Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases and objects arrives in 1772; the Rosetta Stone, originally found by the French, is shipped from Egypt in 1802 after the French defeat by Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile; the Townley collection of classical sculpture makes its debut in 1805; and in 1816 the Parthenon Marbles, controversially known as the Elgin Marbles, which were sold to Lord Elgin by the Turks who had conquered Greece, made their sensational appearance. Greeks today would like to see the Parthenon Marbles returned to Greece. At this time the British Museum continues to preserve them, and all of its vast collections, for all people everywhere. The Museum also continues to collect. Exceptional Anglo-Saxon sword hilt fittings, set with large garnets and dated between AD 600-650, were recently dug out of a field in Lincolnshire and are on display.

An event in the LIBERTY TIMELINE suggests that the Greeks could see the marbles as a thank you gift for their freedom. On October 20, 1827, Admiral Edward Codrington, one of Nelson's captains and a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, risked his career and his life to lead the Royal Navy against the Ottoman Navy to help the Greeks free themselves after 400 years of Turkish oppression. Along with French and Russian squadrons, whose commanders joined him, the Royal Navy destroyed the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Navarino.