A mission to display and convert

Nature's Museums

January 14, 2000

Enabled by the National Lottery, there has been a boom in museum building unprecedented since that of the mid to late 19th century. It can be illuminating to examine the situation of a century or so ago, allowing comparison of the motives and intentions of museum promoters then and now.

For although there has been a spate of books on museum architecture in recent years, few have linked the buildings with the purpose and meaning of their designs. Nikolaus Pevsner paid scant attention to the subject in his museum chapter in A History of Building Types ("a glance must be cast on museums set up for the exhibiting of objects not shown for aesthetic reasons"). In her book, Carla Yanni demonstrates how Victorian views of the natural world, and how they were presented to an increasingly museum-conscious public, impinged on museum architecture.

Any survey of the history of public museums has to begin with the Ashmolean, the museum opened at Oxford University in 1683 to house the cabinet of natural and artificial rarities amassed by the Tradescants and donated by Elias Ashmole. The imposing, purpose-built museum was a centre for scientific work, set out on three floors, the top floor being for display, the middle for teaching and the basement a chemistry laboratory. While it is true that science was not formally adopted as a subject suitable for students in Oxford until the 19th century, Yanni reaches the strange conclusion that science did not have an architectural presence at the university before then. In Great Britain, a natural history museum movement occurred through the 19th century.

Governments and universities promoted museum construction and the continuing cost of running them, usually with enthusiasm. This book covers the more important museums in Great Britain as a series of case studies, including the university museums at Cambridge, Glasgow and Oxford, the museums of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Museum of Practical Geology in London, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art and the British Museum at South Kensington. Peale's Museum in Philadelphia and the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle of Paris are touched on. The approach to these museums cannot simply be in terms of bricks and mortar: intellectual issues of a scientific and religious nature impacted on aesthetic architectural concerns and these have to be considered if the buildings that resulted are to be understood. Debates on the appropriateness of proposed designs could become passionate.

A core function of museums is to develop structures of knowledge of the natural or cultural world by the study of objects. This process started well before the rise of the public museums. From the 16th century, engravings provide evidence of how classification systems and architecture relate, for example in the depiction of Michele Mercati's ideal museum with its cabinets of rocks, minerals and fossils. Useful natural-history taxonomies were being developed by collectors long before Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturae appeared in 1735, as can be seen from the Royal Society's museum catalogue of 1681, compiled by Nehemiah Grew. To say, as Yanni does, that in the 17th century "collectors gathered natural specimens in a quest for the absurd, curious or monstrous" is to trivialise the intentions of many concerned with the activity. That is not to say that all was well in the world of private museums. In 1736 Linnaeus visited Sir Hans Sloane, creator of the collection that was later to form the British Museum, and declared the collection to be "in complete disorder".

Large-scale buildings for public (or, at least, non-private) museums were not constructed until the 19th century in Great Britain: the doors of the British Museum that opened to the public for the first time in 1759 were those of a 17th-century mansion, and it was not until 1823 that Robert Smirke produced drawings for a purpose-built museum. The first case study described by Yanni is for the University Library and Museum at Cambridge on the sensitive site next to King's College. An architectural competition, launched in 1829, was to descend into a "battle-of-the-styles" quarrel of a kind that permeated many similar museum projects throughout the 19th century. In this case the main contenders were Thomas Rickman (in the Gothic corner) and Charles Cockerell (Greek). Cockerell won by a comfortable margin, but ultimately the museum part was heavily curtailed.

In Oxford in the 1850s, the judging went the other way. The Palladian design of Edward Barry was easily defeated by Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward's Gothic, though the latter had the overwhelming advantage of Ruskin's support. Why the difference between Cambridge and Oxford? It would seem that the former chose a classical style because the building was primarily a library, while the latter was more a museum. The Gothic of the Oxford museum was able to reflect natural forms, the architects making the building an extension of its collection, with a variety of marbles chosen for the columns of the inside cloister and the iron capitals designed with leaves, fruits and flowers.

The two biggest projects of the century were the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (now the Royal Museum) and the British Museum in South Kensington (now the Natural History Museum). There was no competition held for the Edinburgh Museum. Francis Fowke, a Royal Engineer, was selected to produce a building on the lines of the 1851 Great Exhibition. But there were differences: in Edinburgh, the natural history collection of the university had to sit alongside industrial collections, and the building was to be a permanent part of the urban landscape. Fowke's design incorporated two distinct approaches: an 1851-derived hall of vast dimensions constructed from iron, wood and glass, which was set behind a street facade in Lombardic Renaissance style. This remarkable marriage worked well, and the shock and delight of discovering the main hall for the first time is still to be felt today.

There were wonderful debates about the design of the Natural History Museum, with one unsuccessful architect (Francis Fowke) denouncing the courtyards proposed by another (Robert Kerr) as having "mildew-generating wells [like] dark little streets, always open to rain and rarely to sun, and containing masses of stagnant air". Alfred Waterhouse won the competition, basing his design on sketches offered by the bombastic director, Robert Owen. Owen's requirements were based on his personal views of natural theology, and the effect is everywhere to be seen, from the terracotta decoration emphasising the diversity of God's creation, to the statue of Adam placed strategically on the highest gable and the church-like quality of the central hall. Owen required that the entire collection be displayed but that the extinct animals should be exhibited quite separately from specimens of those which lived. These policies, based on a pre-Darwinian upbringing, were quickly overturned by his successor. Though it took someone with Owen's clout to get the Natural History Museum established, Yanni is overdoing her praise with the claim that he "established England's reputation as a museum-making nation".

There has always been discussion about the purpose of museums, and Yanni's final two chapters, rather unexpectedly, tackle current debates and describe two eccentric American museums. The main and continuing issue is whether museums are educational spectacles or research resources. In the 19th century concerns were expressed about museums appearing to be bazaars, the glazed halls and galleries bearing a relationship to Victorian emporia. (What would be said of today's museum shops?)

Current issues include the question of authenticity. Stephen Jay Gould is quoted, criticising "commercial dinomania", though Yanni describes him as a scientist rather than a cultural theorist, thereby explaining his rejections of academic postmodernism and enthusiasm for simulated effects. Even without moving monsters, the museum remains a powerful medium: the Museum of Creation and Earth History at San Diego was established to promote fundamentalist religious views. But are the messages set out in this museum any more blatant than those incorporated in the architecture and layout of museums in the past century? Yanni has asked important questions about the manipulation of museum audiences by those with a mission.

R. G. W. Anderson is director, British Museum

Nature's Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display

Author - Carla Yanni
ISBN - 0 485 00405 4
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 166

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