Curiosity And Enlightenment, by Arthur MacGregor

The world in a glass cabinet: how history was collected and put on display

It was Arthur MacGregor who largely invented the idea of the history of museums with his joint publication, The Origins of Museums, in 1985. Since then museum history has become a popular subject, handled in very different ways, from theoretical speculation to the study of individual institutions.

What has been missing is an up-to-date survey of how and why Western museums have formed different types of collection. This is what MacGregor – a curator at the Ashmolean in Oxford, Britain's oldest surviving museum – has been working to provide.

This book ends in the late 19th century; the huge number of museums founded since would require another one. Collections – including herbaria, entomology, paintings, gems – are the main preoccupation. The changing ways museums operate form a subsidiary theme, although MacGregor considers their shifting publics, the character of curators, and the evolving nature of displays.

This is an outstanding achievement. There is very little MacGregor does not know about historic collections. With terse lucidity, he moves from the "models and precursors" – classical collections, war booty, religious relics – through private study cabinets (princely, scholarly, scientific) to sculpture and picture collections, charting the move from the private to public sphere.

This is a vigorous exercise in intellectual history, which only occasionally slips into reading like a catalogue of collectors. A brief, telling account of death and anatomy within museums leads to a discussion of changing ideas about collecting antique specimens, and then museums of science. The final chapter considers the transformation of museums in the 19th century, when they opened to a broad public keen to be educated by didactic displays. Only a few subsections, such as museums of hygiene or food (popular in the later 19th century), have avoided MacGregor's searching gaze.

Assisted by the illustrations, the book works at several levels. Invaluable as a textbook, it will also be indispensable and entertaining for anyone interested in the history of institutions that attract huge numbers of visitors. The last book that attempted a survey on this scale was published by David Murray, a Scottish solicitor, in 1904. We can happily wait until the next century before MacGregor (what is it about these Scots?) will be superseded.

Giles Waterfield's novel 'Markham Thorpe' is published by Review

Yale University Press, £45. Order (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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