British Museum

For most collectors, their hobby is a private pursuit.  

They take a quiet satisfaction in assembling and curating the definitive set.  

But others see things differently.  

Their collections come to represent a gift to the world. 

Some of the world’s most famous museums originated this way.  

Let’s delve into the origins of 10 iconic institutions.   

The Smithsonian  

James Smithson (1765-1829) had some major accomplishments in chemistry and mineralogy.  

But his legacy is so much greater than he could have imagined.  


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

He died childless but wealthy.  

And in his will, he left his considerable funds to the US Government – to found a museum in Washington, DC. It was named the Smithsonian in his honour. 

But Smithson was English.  

Despite his generosity, he’d never actually visited the US.  

That is, before his death.  

In 1903, Alexander Graham Bell, then an employee at the museum, travelled to Smithson’s gravesite in Genoa, Italy.  

Smithson’s bones were reinterred in the museum’s grounds, where they rest to this day.  

The British Museum  

The origins of the British Museum date to 1753, when the doctor and gentleman scientist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) sold his vast collection of curiosities to the British crown.  

British Museum

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That same year, King George II ordered the establishment of a grand museum that would stand in the centre of the capital. Montagu House, a rambling mansion in unfashionable Bloomsbury once home to the Duke of Montagu, was chosen as the site.  

Sloane’s collection made up the first exhibit.  

As Britain’s imperial power grew, it became the repository for the nation’s spoils of war. 

Princess Ennigaldi 

The world’s first museum (that we know of) was established in the 6th century BC in the ancient city of Ur.  

Its founder was Princess Ennigaldi; priestess, teacher and daughter of King Nabonidus – the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian empire.  


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

While excavating her palace in the early 1900s, archaelogist Leonard Wooley and his team discovered a series of artefacts laid out in a fashion that would be familiar to museum attendees today.  

By the side of some of the artefacts were clay tablets, providing a date and a brief description of each item.  

The items on display included an ancient Babylonian kudurru, a type of boundary stone, and a fragment of a statue of King Shulgi (2029 – 1982 BC) - the third ruler of Ur.  

These would have been ancient even in Ennigaldi’s time.  

It goes to show how innate the urge to collect and catalogue is in humans.   

Borghese Gallery  

Italy is home to countless incredible museums.  

But there’s one in particular that gets art lovers weak at the knees.  

Borghese Museum

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Rome’s Borghese Gallery is the former retreat of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633).  

Borghese wasn’t short of cash. The sprawling Borghese Musuem was once his weekend home.  

He was also a patron of Caravaggio and Bernini, two of the most acclaimed artists of the Baroque era, and both feature heavily. 

People have been making the pilgrimage to gaze on Borghese’s collection for centuries.  

The Ashmolean 

Oxford has been welcoming students since the 11th century.  

This compact city is one of the most prestigious places to study in the world.  


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It also boasts some fine museums.  

Perhaps the most famous is the Ashmolean, named for the antiquarian Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) 

Ashmole gifted Oxford University a large and priceless collection of manuscripts. To showcase them, the university opened a dedicated museum in 1683, making Ashmole one of very few people on this list to actually visit the institution that bears his name.  

The bulk of Ashmole’s collection originally belonged to a fellow collector named John Tradescant the Younger. Ashmole helped Tradescant with cataloguing the collection.  

At some point before his death, Tradescant signed the collection over to Ashmole. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, claimed her husband had been drunk when he did so and fought in the courts to get it returned. In 1678, she drowned in mysterious circumstances on her property.  

Chichu Art Museum 

The tiny Japanese island of Naoshima sits in the Seto Inland Sea, just off the coast of Okayama.  

Chichu Art Gallery

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s the location of the iconic Chichu Art Museum.  

The building itself is carved into the rock of the island; its galleries lit by natural light and installations by the American sculptor James Turrell. Traversing its cavernous hallways will bring you face to face with works by Claude Monet and Walter De Maria. 

Its founder is the billionaire Soichiro Fukutake, former director of Bennesse Holdings, who envisaged the space as a shrine to art. Certainly it is one of the most unusual and inspiring art galleries anywhere in the world. 


Solomon R Guggenheim was one of the defining industrialists of America’s Gilded Age.  

He was also a passionate art lover.  


Over the years he built up a vast private collection of contemporary art. 

By the 1930s, the collection had grown so large that a dedicated gallery needed to be built.  

Guggenheim called on the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for 15 years to deliver one of the most extraordinary buildings ever constructed.  

Guggenheim died in 1949 – eight years before his museum ever opened.  

Located on the eastern edge of Central Park it remains a must-see for any visitor to New York. 

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising 

British collector Robert Opie has an unusual obsession.  

Museum Brands Packaging

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the 1960s he has bought up packaging from the consumer brands you’ll see in most British supermarkets. In 1975, he hosted an exhibition at the V&A titled The Pack Age: A Century of Wrapping It Up.  

But he didn’t stop there.  

He now has an estimated 12,000 items and his own museum in London. The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is an ongoing project to track the changes in household products from the Victorian era to the present day. 

It offers an overview of our society from the ground, through the everyday items we all use.  

Fan museum 

Helene Alexander founded London’s Fan Museum in 1985, after spending her early career with the V&A.  

Fan Museum

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Fans were always her passion. She has a vast personal collection of these items, ranging from the mundane to the elaborate status symbols wielded by society women throughout history.  

A good curator can spark interest in a subject you may know nothing about.  

This skill is very much in evidence in Alexander’s charming museum.  

Sir John Soane's Museum 

The final museum on this list (and a personal favourite of mine) is Sir John Soane's Museum in London.  

Soames Museum

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Enter this beautiful townhouse and you’ll discover a wealth of art, antiquities and architectural models assembled by one man.  

Soane (1753-1837) was an architect, best known for his design for the Bank of England.  

Entering the museum feels a little like stepping into his head.  

It’s a kind of ordered chaos. Walls of paintings can be opened to reveal more paintings, vast statues take up entire rooms and bizarre curiosities loom from the corners.  

In the hands of a lesser collector it would be a bizarre concoction.  

Somehow, Soane makes it work. 

Paul Fraser. 

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