The British Museum and the Royal Academy: the nation state, English and British identities, and the constitution in the eighteenth century

Sheila Watson


During the mid-eighteenth century two museum institutions the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts were established, the former by Parliament, the latter by artists under the patronage of the Crown. In their origins and their early development they illustrate and help shape ideas relating to the growth of the notion of Britishness and English national identity. They were the theatres in which ideas about the kind of political nation Britain imagined itself to be were played out between loyalists (supporters of a reformed monarchy) and Whigs (mistrustful of the crown and jealous of the hard won rights of Parliament). Their foundation is all the more extraordinary because they developed at a time when the arts were not generally understood to be  a matter for the state in Britain and when some powerful politicians regarded national sponsorship and support of the arts with great suspicion.

This paper seeks to re-examine the origins of these two key national cultural institutions. It considers their political significance and suggests that this has been somewhat downplayed by those who focus on their development within cultural historical contexts. While not dismissing the importance of the international and national cultural arenas in which these institutions were imagined and forged, particularly the role of the Enlightenment, the paper suggests that they can only be fully understood within the context of a nation still exploring and developing a constitutional monarchical system of government and its need to present a form of Britishness to its citizens and its neighbours.


British Museum, Royal Academy of Arts, Britishness, Englishness, national identity.

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360

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