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Author: John Senior

The Rise of Museums

Dr John Senior examines the factors that led to the rise of museums.

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British Museum

"…a recreation, an education experience,
a monument to humanity's struggle to rise from the muck and the goo,
and get an upper hand over its environment …"

[David Mamet, The museum of science and technology story'in Five Television Plays, New York (1990)]

Such is the purpose of a modern museum. In Mamet's fictional, behind-the-scenes account of museum life, historical characters come alive at night in a twilight world between fantasy and reality and illustrate the ironies of museum celebrations and omissions - of industrial and cultural decline, destructive technological progress and marginalised cultures. 'Ze building is a monument to science…to orderly understanding, and an affront to all ze ravages of Time…it has some weight', declaims one German U-boat radio operator to the hero. In another corner are the boomerang-throwing Potawantamies.

Mamet, of course, is not referring specifically to the British Museum here but the 'weight' that is now conferred upon major museums is due in no small part to the path-breaking role of the British Museum, which recently celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth birthday.

Meaning ascribed to museum collections and their objects has changed over time. Museums of science, technology, natural history, of civilisation have become emblematic of modernity and rational knowledge, their majestic architecture, part cathedral, part stately home, and their neat displays of objects organised along taxonomic and/or evolutionary principles. When did the idea arise that museums and their exhibitions could be viewed as technologies themselves for self-improvement and a means for promoting an orderly understanding of the natural world? The answer lies in the 18th and 19th century, when Britain rose to prominence as an industrial nation and imperial power.

Before that time, displays of natural objects were epitomised by the 'cabinets of curiosities' brought back from the voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th century which were shown to the wealthy classes. The cabinets were designed to amaze the viewer with each object telling its own story. The impetus behind much of this lay in men's piety and superstition that valued the rare or peculiar - a prized horn from a unicorn, unusually shaped stones, monstrosities of nature. Perhaps most famous of these was 'Tradescant's Ark,' a collection of items that came to form the basis of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. The Tradescants were gardeners to various 17th century aristocrats and also to Charles I. Between them they amassed plants, flowers, shells and relics that could take a visitor a whole day to peruse.


By the 18th century, however, 'cabinets of curiosities' gave way to different types of collections prized for their comprehensive ranges of plants, animals and various other types of artefacts. Europeans had come to recognise that nature itself offered enough diversity to delight the observer without recourse to the marvellous. Gone was the mythic and emblematic significance of specimens that was part of the classical world. What Enlightenment thought brought to Natural History - the collecting, describing and displaying of natural objects - was the idea of assemblages as parts of the orderly arrays of God's creation and of human artifice.

The impetus for this lay in the growth of the urban commercial societies of Holland and England where, during the Scientific Revolution, puritan reformers strove to improve the trades, agriculture and medicine. In the new mechanical philosophy, God was held to be a watchmaker, a craftsman. Objects were to be celebrated, estates were 'improved' and nature became 'domesticated' along with advances in agriculture and farming. The landed gentry collected plants and animals, eggs and minerals as well as archaeological artefacts, coins, prints and sculptures. Such assemblages denoted wealth, order and intellect and, in so far as they commanded respect, helped naturalise the social order.

It was this age of connoisseurship and stability that the founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane was born into in 1660. As a child he was a keen observer of nature and in later years recalled how the study of plants and 'other parts of Nature much pleased him'. He studied medicine in France and at the age of thirty five set up practice in Bloomsbury Square, London. He became the epitome of a successful physician securing wealthy patients and royal patronage. As a naturalist, writer and collector Sloane was recognised by the Royal Society and eventually became its President from 1727-1741 - the only person to be President of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians at the same time (1719-1735).

Sloane's studies in botany - he met and befriended some of the greatest French botanists of the time, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and Monsignor Magnol - were amply rewarded later in life. Upon qualifying in medicine, he was offered the opportunity to travel to Jamaica as physician to the new Governor. For fifteen months Sloane observed and documented the native flora and fauna, the local customs of the inhabitants and natural phenomena such as earthquakes. Upon the death of his employer, Sloane returned in 1689 and began work on his Catalogus Plantarum, which was eventually published in 1696.

Over the next fifty years Sloane's collections grew enormously to fill a large part of his house and attracted a stream of distinguished figures. One in particular, Carl Linnaeus, was to use Sloane's texts and drawings as the basis for descriptions of new species.

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753 he left in his will some 71,000 plants, animals, antiquities, coins and many other objects of the time to the nation, with the proviso that the sum of £20,000 be paid to his heirs. King George II and Parliament were persuaded to accept the gift, and an act of Parliament establishing the museum received royal assent on 7th June 1753, the money being raised through a public lottery.

Sloane, however, was not alone in assembling such collections. The famous surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) amassed some 17,000 objects and specimens during his lifetime. These were bought by Parliament for £15,000 and eventually housed in the Royal College of Surgeons, where they are still on display. Another collector was Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who joined Captain Cook in the South Seas and brought back to London some 1,300 new plant species. He held the post of President of the Royal Society for 42 years and did much to establish the Botanic Garden at Kew.

If natural history was the key to the birth of the British Museum, then the rise of imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries accounted for its growth. As Britain competed with European powers in nation building, museums in capital cities became expressions of national and imperial power. France was first and soon after the Revolution restyled the Royal Botanic Garden as the National Museum of Natural History.

The development of the British Museum was less dramatic. Hans Sloane's collections were gradually added to, and by mid-century the British Museum had been transformed into a storehouse of imperial treasures advertising its colonial possessions. In 1881 a new building was established in South Kensington to house the burgeoning natural history collections. No one could fail to be impressed with Waterhouse's gothic temple to science that incorporated biological symbolism into the design of the museum. The effect of the Romanesque arcades and Baroque staircases with cast-iron columns and glass roof was likened to a railway station and spawned imitators around the world. The London Science Museum has its roots in the Great Exhibition of 1851 when international displays of technology became popular as trade fairs and promotional displays.

Increasingly recast as educational institutions, instructing the observer while at the same time morally improving him, questions of purpose, organisation and display emerged as central concerns. Curators were forced to develop collections that answered the needs of diverse social groups. Museums were expected to serve the growing middle classes who had more wealth and leisure than ever before. They wanted both education and amusement. By the 20th century the 'less is more' philosophy in museum displays was found to be more instructive, and the remaining inventories of specimens would be reserved for scientific investigators. The conflict between the two aims of research and popular education remain a vexed problem for museum administrators everywhere.

'History is other people's junk', a sign in the CheckPoint Charlie Museum in Berlin reads. Fortunately the Victorian obsessions with 'junk' associated with archaeology, anthropology and Empire and natural history resulted in 'cathedrals to science'. Of course the order has moved on. Unadorned functionalism lacking any scale or grandeur was the 20th century vogue. New exhibitions of science and technology deploying new interactive electronic gadgetry equate progress with technological change. The spectre of the modern museum visitor as cyborg, part human part machine, is also with us. The information age has given rise to 'virtual collections' and 'virtual museums'. How this developing technology will determine the future role of museums remains to be seen.


J. V. Pickstone, Ways of Knowing, Manchester University Press (2000)
Sharon Macdonald, editorial, Science as Culture vol 5 (1992)
Susan Sheets-Pyenson, Cathedrals of Science, McGill Queens University Press (1988)
The Natural History Museum
The British Museum
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