The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 31. Museums

The beginning of our period coincides with the formation of public museums. Previous to the Stewart times, collections of “natural objects” were, for the most part, housed in churches, in the houses of the great, in coffee-houses and in the shops of apothecaries; but now public libraries were being established, and, in many of these, botanical, geological and especially zoological specimens found a home. In more than one Cambridge college, the library still gives shelter to a skeleton, a relic of the time when anatomy was taught within the college walls; and, at this day, the curious, and, at times, inconvenient, yoke joining the museum at South Kensington with the museum in Bloomsbury testifies to this primitive state of affairs.

In 1728, John Woodward bequeathed his “Fossils, vast quantities of Ores, Minerals and Shells, with other curiosities well worth viewing” to Cambridge university; it was housed in the university library and formed the nucleus about which the present magnificent museum has collected. For many years, the Royal Society maintained a museum which, at one time, contained “the stones taken out of Lord Belcarre’s heart in a silver box,”… “a petrified fish, the skin of an antelope which died in St. James’ Park, a petrified foetus” and “a bottle full of stag’s tears.” The trustees of Gresham college assigned the long gallery as a home for these and other “rarities”; but, when the society, in 1781, migrated to Somerset house, the entire collection was handed over to the British Museum. The charter of the last named is dated 1753, and its beginnings were the library of Sir Robert Cotton, which the nation had purchased in 1700, and the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, which were now purchased with the proceeds of a lottery, set on foot for this purpose. The collections of this “General Repository,” as the act of 1753 called the museum, were kept together until the middle of the nineteenth century, when, after long delay, the natural history objects were transferred to South Kensington and housed in a building which, in all respects, was worthy of the Board of Works of the time.

John Tradescant and his son of the same name accumulated and stored in south Lambeth a “museum which was considered to be the most extensive in Europe at that time.” It was acquired in 1659 by Elias Ashmole, and, with his own collections, passed by gift, twenty-three years later, to Oxford university, the whole forming the nucleus of the present Ashmolean museum.

Want of space precludes the consideration of other museums; but it may be remarked that the earlier collectors got together their treasures much as schoolboys now collect, their taste was universal and no rarity was too trivial for their notice. Such collections excited popular interest, and “a museum of curiosities” was often an added attraction to the London coffee-house. At the end of the eighteenth century, the coffee-house part of the enterprise was dropped, and the museum, with an entrancefee and a priced catalogue, formed a source of revenue to many a collector, most of whom were not too scrupulous in their identifications. The dime museums in the Bowery, New York, are their modern successors. These museums were of little scientific or educational value; at best, they stimulated the imagination of the uninformed, or allowed a child to see with his own eyes something he had read about in his books. The normal, as a rule, was passed by, the abnormal treasured. Ethnographical objects were collected, not so much to arouse in the spectator a desire to study seriously “ye beastlie devices of ye heathen” as to excite and startle him with their rough unfinish, on the one hand, and their high finish on the other. The collections of the museums were ill arranged, inaccurately labelled and inaccessible to students; the staff were wholly inadequate and mainly dependent for their living on admission fees. It was not until the nineteenth century was well advanced that a systematic and scientific attempt was made to identify specimens accurately, to arrange them logically, to label them fully and, further, to collect in the background, unseen by the fleeting visitor, vast accumulations of material for the investigation of the genuine student and researcher.

Museums as centres of real education, not as places of wonder and vacant amazement, are almost affairs of our time, and it was not until the twentieth century that official guides were appointed to explain their treasures to the enquiring visitor. Even to-day, the system of weekly lectures on the contents of a museum which obtains largely on the other side of the Atlantic is, with us, only beginning.

We must not omit to mention the magnificent museum of the Royal college of Surgeons, in London, which incorporates the Hunterian collection brought together by John Hunter, and which has been growing ever since his time. Of its kind, it is without a rival in the world.

During the seventeenth century, men of science still, to a great extent, remained the gifted amateurs they were at the time of the foundation of the Royal Society; and yet they were very successful in establishing many institutions which had a greater effect on the advance of biological sciences than their founders foresaw.