Giles Waterfield: The ramshackle origin of museums

From a speech given by the author and curator at a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of the British Museum
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The Independent Online

Whether or not the early British Museum was a giant, it was certainly surrounded by pygmies. Since the early 17th century, museums had existed, if not flourished, in London and large provincial cities as well as in private hands. I want to touch on the nature of some of these early museums, and to try to give an impression of the intellectual background that inspired them and that produced an attempt, however limited, to communicate with some sort of a public.

In one important respect these early museums did not at all resemble such institutions as we know them. Fine art, as we would call it, did not enjoy the privileged position it achieved in the 19th century. The assumption prevailed that works of art deserved a place in a museum collection primarily as examples of skilful craftsmanship, rather than objects in their own right. Thus, even in the Tradescant or Ashmolean collection, fine art was in effect restricted to the portraits of the founders; English and foreign men of learning; and recent Kings of England. The primarily historical and loyalist significance of this choice is obvious.

The taxonomical system adopted in the early Tradescant catalogue did not allow a special place for works of art. The handful of paintings, such as a landscape by Nathaniel Bacon, were listed in the 1656 catalogue in the somewhat inglorious category of "Mechanick artificiall Works in Carvings, Turnings, Sowings and Paintings".

The early museums in Britain shared a number of characteristics. They were set up by private individuals or by learned societies. While sometimes open to the general public, such accessibility (as we would now call it) was not a significant feature, unless enforced by financial pressures. It would be inappropriate to categorise these institutions in modern terms: they were not museums with a specific focus such as, say, archaeology or natural history; rather, they aspired to a comprehensive coverage of the productions of art and nature. In many cases it is apparent from contemporary descriptions that the collections were assembled with a moral purpose, to show forth the glory of God. Nothing, in other words, was to be excluded from them, and they merged seamlessly with the libraries that almost invariably formed a part of the holdings.

So what were these museums? The Royal Society, which had existed in unofficial form for some years, was formally set up at Gresham College in the early 1660s. It boasted a "Repository" intended to house instruments used for regular scientific experiments, and to bring together objects intended to create a microcosm of the universe.

Of these early societies, the ancestors of the literary and philosophical institutes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, one remarkable example survives. The Gentlemen's Society of Spalding, in Lincolnshire, began to form around 1710 under the influence of the antiquary Maurice Johnson. One of the prevailing interests of the Society was the study of antiquities and natural history, with a strong local bias.

In so far as their collections were intended to assist in the deciphering of the universe through scientific research rather than ecclesiastical dogma, they were symbols of Enlightenment thinking. Not only were the collections used as tools of research supporting the lectures and experiments conducted on the premises, but their codification in manuscript and, if possible, printed catalogues was regarded as a crucial element of the institution's work. The taxonomical principles on which these catalogues were based were diverse and necessarily experimental, but in their various forms they did give the collections some intellectual coherence.

In the long term, all the more intellectually-based of these museums were in effect failures. With the decline of the intellectual life that engendered them, they ceased to have any validity. They were, however, the forefathers in more than chronology of the British Museum.