The Wonderful World of Bloomsbury

9 December 2013

In October Wellcome Collection’s crew spent the weekend at Russell Square with many other museum and cultural heritage professionals as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. Muriel Bailly explores what it is about Bloomsbury that makes it one of London’s most dynamic cultural centres.

The Bloomsbury area is delimited on the north by Holborn, stretching south as far as Euston Road, and bounded to the east and west respectively by Gray’s Inn Road and Tottenham Court Road. The area is famous for being composed of many square gardens. In fact, Bloomsbury was the first site in London to be named “square”. It was first known as Southampton Square, laid in the 1660s by the 4th Earl of Southampton Thomas Wriothesley. His father was Henry Wriothesley, Shakespeare’s patron, and he was himself the father of Lady Rachel Russell – wife of William Russell, and still remembered today for her writing talents as well as her piety. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Russell family developed Bloomsbury into a fashionable residential area that attracted numerous artists and intellectuals, transforming the area into an ideal place for cultural innovations and the site of many ‘firsts’.

Among these, the most iconic example is probably the founding of the British Museum in 1753 as the first national public museum in the world. Since opening to the public in 1759, the museum has granted free admission to all ‘studious and curious persons’. Visitor numbers have grown from around 5000 a year in the 18th century to nearly 6 million today, making the British Museum one of London’s most-visited sites.

 The British Museum at Montague House: the courtyard.

The British Museum at Montague House: the courtyard.

When UCL (University College London) was established in the area in 1826, it certainly reinforced Bloomsbury’s position as a strong cultural centre. UCL was created to open up education in England for the first time to students of any race or religion. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham is traditionally considered as the founder of UCL – the display of his clothed skeleton in the college’s Cloisters can be misleading! In reality, Bentham played no active part in establishing the college, although his ideas and philosophy did inspire its foundation. He also helped to fund its development and gave his blessing to the project. After being the first university in England to welcome students from all backgrounds, it became the first university of the country to admit women on equal terms with men. Today, UCL is considered one of the UK’s leading universities and has welcomed prestigious students such as Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the DNA structure), Mahatma Gandhi (leader of the Indian independence) and Peter Higgs (winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2013), to name a few.

 University College London

University College London

The young, dynamic and thriving atmosphere surrounding UCL and the whole Bloomsbury area kept attracting scholars in the 20th century – best represented by the Bloomsbury Group, of which Virginia Wolf was considered to be the leader. The collective of friends included influential writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, who worked, studied and lived in Bloomsbury, feeding into its cultural scene.

Bloomsbury Festival, which Wellcome Collection took part in last October, was created in 2006 to celebrate this rich cultural heritage. Over six days the festival showcases art, music, and dance and literature performances to show the rest of London that Bloomsbury has not lost any of its cultural prestige and to bring professionals together. This year, to accompany our Thinking with the Body exhibition, Wellcome Collection hosted a Ministry of Movement programming dance performances, which received more than 1700 visitors throughout the weekend. Although the team is now enjoying a well-deserved rest, we already have our thinking caps on for next year, so we’ll see you there!