Today is the 255th anniversary of the opening of the British Museum to the public. The first few decades of tours were not without their problems, and there's a great account available on their website of the mounting discontent at delays in getting tickets and at the lack of information available to the visitors being hurried through the collections.
Twenty-three years after it opened, German writer Karl Philipp Moritz gave this account of his visit:
I have had the happiness to become acquainted with the Rev. Mr. Woide; who, though well known all over Europe to be one of the most learned men of the age, is yet, if possible, less estimable for his learning than he is for his unaffected goodness of heart. He holds a respectable office in the museum, and was obliging enough to procure me permission to see it, luckily the day before it was shut up. In general you must give in your name a fortnight before you can he admitted. But after all, I am sorry to say, it was the rooms, the glass cases, the shelves, or the repository for the books in the British Museum which I saw, and not the museum itself, we were hurried on so rapidly through the apartments. The company, who saw it when and as I did, was various, and some of all sorts; some, I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes; for, as it is the property of the nation, every one has the same right (I use the term of the country) to see it that another has. I had Mr. Wendeborn’s book in my pocket, and it, at least, enabled me to take a somewhat more particular notice of some of the principal things; such as the Egyptian mummy, a head of Homer, &c. The rest of the company, observing that I had some assistance which they had not, soon gathered round me; I pointed out to them as we went along, from Mr. Wendeborn’s German book, what there was most worth seeing here. The gentleman who conducted us took little pains to conceal the contempt which he felt for my communications when he found out that it was only a German description of the British Museum I had got. The rapidly passing through this vast suite of rooms, in a space of time little, if at all, exceeding an hour, with leisure just to cast one poor longing look of astonishment on all these stupendous treasures of natural curiosities, antiquities, and literature, in the contemplation of which you could with pleasure spend years, and a whole life might be employed in the study of them - quite confuses, stuns, and overpowers one. In some branches this collection is said to be far surpassed by some others; but taken altogether, and for size, it certainly is equalled by none. The few foreign divines who travel through England generally desire to have the Alexandrian manuscript shewn them, in order to be convinced with their own eyes whether the passage, “These are the three that bear record, &c.,” is to be found there or not.
- Travels in England in 1782
And here's a picture of by far my favourite exhibit in the museum, Hans Schlottheim's mechanical galleon.