3 Museums, fossils and the cultural revolution of science

Mapping change in the politics of knowledge in early nineteenth-century Britain

Simon J. Knell

This chapter is about the reflexive relationships between objects, institutions and practices, and what these tell us about change in the production and control of knowledge. In the first half of the nineteenth century a pattern of scientific engagement based on private cabinets was replaced by one centred on private learned society museums and this in turn was replaced by the system of publicly-funded institutions we still see today. In Britain, the birth of the modern science of geology was strongly associated with these changes. It was, moreover, a science that reached the heights of fashionability in the 1820s and 1830s and which privileged the fossil as its central resource. But, as I shall suggest here, this fashionability – of which museums were an important part – necessitated a political revolution in the new discipline. This revolution paralleled that then taking place in wider society as the country underwent social and political reform. Geology experienced a similar struggle in the late 1830s which shifted power out of hands of a social hegemony and into the control of the employed middle-class bureaucrat. To effect this change the infrastructure of the science had to be changed: museums and fossils – the forums and fuel of the old economy – were fundamentally altered. They thus become indicative of the political progress of a ‘cultural revolution’. This chapter charts that revolution through those museums and their fossils. I should stress that the kind of revolution I describe here is not that concerned with the replacement of essential intellectual paradigms. These have had the full attention of the scholars of the history and philosophy of science (Cohen 1985). A cultural revolution is something different which results in a reshaping of a science’s constitution, institutions, and relationships between actors. Certainly this can happen as a result of intellectual change, but it can also result from tensions in the politics of participation.

Locating the scientific subconscious

In modern society, fossils are understood as scientifically significant objects – a position they have occupied for more than two centuries (see, for example, Rudwick 1972; 1985; 2005; Secord 1986). It is, however, also possible to see the fossil as a social resource, and read its role and place culturally (Knell 2000; 2002; Knell and Taylor 2006). Rather than charting a ‘progress’ of ideas, histories which adopt this viewpoint investigate, for instance: the roles and functions of actors (book and paper writers, amateur scientists, collectors, dilettantes, artisans, dealers, and elder statesmen); the primary material objects of study (rocks, minerals and fossils); locations for activity (journals, societies, museums and landscapes); and the nature of interpretation (language, performance, aesthetics). These things are the products of disciplinary formation within wider society. They also reflect the possibilities and constraints of social and individual aspiration. Thus we have three factors useful to this present investigation: the individual with his or her particular motives, positions, opportunities, abilities and relationships; the social aspects of society with its roles as critical judge of legitimate and value actions, as nurturer of fashions and producer of social structures; and the discipline of geology itself with its particular objectives, values, processes, methods and language. All three are constantly in flux and each is partially shaped by the others (Figure 3.1). 

Figure 3.1 Reflexive relationships. Disciplinary locations, practices and objects formed where the intellectual goals of science meet with wider socialised and individual interpretive perspectives.

As I have explained elsewhere, if we can view the formation of a scientific discipline, such as geology, in this cultural sense, then this discipline becomes open to a form of spatial analysis as its growth and development can be seen as a process of colonization followed by ‘civilization’ (Knell 2000: 308-9). It is within the cultural space of the discipline (shaded in Figure 3.1) that the attributes of science are shaped, and since this space is clearly political, its study is essentially one of political geography. 

To locate and trace change within this cultural space one must isolate the relevant indicative structures: institutions and material things which marry the intellectual ideal with the practical possibilities of contemporary society. For geology, museums and the specimens in their collections are obvious examples. But if one is to use museums (and their objects) in this way, then it is critically important to focus on the moment of these institutions’ birth as only then do they holistically embody the ideals and potentials of making knowledge. It often took only a few years for a museum to develop into an uneasy balance between the ideals of its founding, the more conservative notions of tradition and inheritance, and the latest – and sometimes radically different – ideals and aspirations of its current operators. The whole was then further constrained by the inertia imposed by the physical and financial burden of the building and its collection. One only need look at the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society and its museum to see this. Born in 1822, today it is essentially a beautiful relic. It undoubtedly reflects the values of a portion of the modern town and of a wider population but these are very different from the values which shaped the institution in the early nineteenth century, though doubtless a residue of these earlier values remains. 

How then can we recover something of the moment when this learned society and its museum were born? Studying directly what is left of the buildings, objects and collections can be informative but these things alone can retain little sense of their former meanings. Indeed, in many respects museum collections were built on principles which ensured they were rather immune to meanings; they were established to weather change, to remain true and relevant. To look, for example, for evidence of the Darwinian revolution in fossil collections is largely futile. The exhibitions that accompanied the growing acceptance of this new orthodoxy have long gone while the collections themselves were largely unchanged by the event – their ordering relied rather more on their revealed characters than on grander theory. Science constituted collections to be understood as curated bits of reality, although we, as historians and museologists, might question the implicit idealism which permits science to see such things as uncontaminated, ‘disinterested’ and objective (Knell 2007). Collections are, like the real world in totality, the ultimate test of theory; they are meant to be objective and empirical truths beyond mere understanding. Darwin simply gave an alternative explanation to an order easily located in Nature. That explanation may have had rather less need for the notion of a designer God which had been so useful to museum makers 30 years earlier – and no one did look at the stuffed monkeys in the same way again – but in museums the same objects sat in the same serried rows, physical representations of life gathered at a time and place, there to be drawn as evidence into any worldview. 

So rather than reading the order, which has survived in museums to the present day and which says relatively little that is historically useful to us, we need to uncover the ‘looking’ (the interpretive frame) of the founders (Knell 2007). Order alone gives a sense that museums were locked into an abstract ‘Enlightenment project’, but order was only ever required to give science a common language and, as I shall explain here, science was never, at this point of major museum expansion, the closed and arcane world sometimes discussed in the museum studies literature. The Enlightenment museum is an imagined museum, the product of the moral idealism of museum founders combined with an historical interpretation of the ordered relic we can see today. The presence of the idealist in the past – the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, for example, was to ‘acquire’ and ‘diffuse a more perfect knowledge of the works of creation’ (Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1828; Knell 2000) – gives plausibility to the notion of the Enlightenment or ‘modernist’ museum. It permits the construction of an ahistorical black box which serves to encapsulate an imagined extreme and blinkered scientific rationalism. This black box was constructed as an oppositional Other by which postmodernism could perform its own revolution in museum studies. Although this revolution was essential to the intellectual maturity of the discipline it concealed a number of ironies. It depended, for example, upon a particular brand of scientism that claimed evidence from past acts of representation (with its empowered and subjugated parties) but which simultaneously denied the presence of diversity and democracy in the past. Rather it was to claim these as inventions of the postmodern era. My aim here is not to deny or undermine the importance of postmodernism to museum studies but rather to reveal that it – like all revolutions – required the construction of a political myth, an Other that could be painted in black and white. Disciplinary revolution then becomes a political act of constructing black boxes in order to control, and, indeed, it recognizes that control is central to disciplinarity. This, perhaps, gives political extension to Bruno Latour’s groundbreaking investigation of black box making in science of a few years ago (Latour 1987). In its revolutionary form, the black box relies upon an act of decontextualization and the construction of an oppositional form. By this means the new, favoured, alternative must position itself as a morally and politically-elevated (according the subconscious of the time) paradigm. By this means a discipline can undergo revolution. It happened to museum studies in the late 1980s – early 1990s, and, as I shall argue below, it happened in geology 150 years earlier with a considerable impact on museums and their objects.

To understand the nineteenth-century science culture within which that revolution took place we need to interrogate a considerable range of materials (newspaper reviews, annual reports, scientific publications, accession registers, correspondence, field notebooks, museum labels, collecting instructions) in order to sense the contemporary interpretive outlook, as each kind of document encapsulates different values and perspectives. By these means we can locate the cultural subconscious of science. To value this notion is to suggest that decisions that shaped early nineteenth-century science culture in the English city of York, for example, were influenced by regional actions (such as the mob burning hayricks on distant Yorkshire farms), local civic disputes (such as that concerning the refurbishment of York Minster) and national perceptions (such as the universally low reputation of some of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions). These things contribute to the doing of science, affecting the things it values, the form and appropriateness of its practices and the shape of its institutions. Only through a study of language can we hope to reveal this subconscious (here highlighted with my italics): ‘As England is not only the most affluent of modern nations, but the grand centre of commercial activity and communication between distant portions of the globe…we may naturally ask why her museums do not display a proportional extent and magnificence, and set all foreign rivalry at defiance?’ (Lyell 1826a: 155). Here the words of geological theorist and populariser, Charles Lyell, remain accessible today, but that accessibility creates an illusion. In fact, his words conceal that complex individual subconscious that merges those three perceptions I discussed above. Similarly, William Vernon Harcourt, President of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and a founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), noted the opinion of Alexander von Humboldt at the first meeting of the BAAS in York in 1831. He remarked: ‘There is not a country in the world which had such opportunities for making collections as England. Yet how wretched were the collections of the British Museum’ (York Courant, 27 September 1831). This statement relies upon tacit comparisons, shared knowledge and values, paradigms and so on. I am not referring here merely to context, but to an absorbed and digested sense of one’s world. I am also thinking of an individually specific reading, not simply a generalized Zeitgeist. This individual and social subconscious is critical to unravelling science and its museums and objects in this earlier period. To illustrate this point a little further, I want to begin by exploring and expanding the meaning of fossils – a subject I dealt at length a few years ago (Knell 2000). We might tackle this by asking ‘What would it mean to find a stone nodule on a British beach in 1830?’

Fossils of the subconscious

Brown, smooth and rounded, a nodule of stone, although aesthetically pleasing – even curious – is ordinary and everyday, and indistinguishable from the many other pebbles that accompany it on the beach. But what if, with one hammer blow, that nodule is split in two to reveal a fossil? How would our conception of the unopened nodule change? When distinguished television naturalist, David Attenborough, re-enacted this moment in a Leicestershire quarry as a scene from his childhood, he turned to camera and remarked how breathtaking it was to look at a trace of life which in perhaps the 200 million years of its existence no human eyes had seen. For Attenborough, as for those who performed the same act nearly two centuries before, it was to peer into a primeval world. Attenborough’s life became a succession of such revelatory moments as he sought to be the first to bring extraordinary animals and animal behaviour to our screens (Attenborough 2002). But when Attenborough saw his first fossil, sometime before the Second World War, he would have had little difficulty relating it to the wider natural world, so adequately represented by his growing menagerie of captive animals. In contrast, the finder of a nodule in 1830 lived in a world that was only then discovering the true nature of the fossil past, a past that often revealed the totally unexpected. In 1821, for example, the discovery of hyena remains in Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire produced a national sensation. It assured Oxford University’s William Buckland – the man who turned this discovery into an animated scene from the distant past – of great public celebrity. Similarly, in 1824, the skeleton of a monstrously-proportioned beast, without any modern analogue, arrived in London having been shipped directly from the site of its exhumation at Lyme Regis in Dorset. This was the plesiosaur, an animal Buckland’s friend, William Conybeare, had been piecing together for some time. Having presented the discovery to an excited audience, Conybeare told his friend and helper, Henry De la Beche, of the find, signalling the triumph also in terms of his own performance: ‘I made my beast roar almost as loud as Buckland’s Hyenas’ (Knell 2000: 197). In the early nineteenth century, the boundaries, which limit our own expectations of what we might find within a nodule, were far less clearly drawn. The nodule was clearly understood for its revelatory potential and for the celebrity a mere hit of the hammer might bring. It was this possibility which fuelled a succession of short-term collecting fads and fashions in natural history, and which taken more broadly kept the discipline alive (Allen 1994).

While there was much about the past world that geology could reveal as extraordinary, the science also made the commonplace significant. In the late eighteenth century, land and mineral surveyor, William Smith, had discovered that rocks have a natural order or sequence and that each contains its own peculiar fossils. Thus given similar looking rocks, fossils provided the key to identifying the rock and its position in the sequence. In other words, fossils permitted rocks to be seen as a time sequence – a historical record. One could now imagine a world stretching back through time, from the modern age, through a history of kings and queens and into a past recorded in those documents that permitted the writing of the Bible, and then back still further to Buckland’s hyenas, and beyond to the world of Conybeare’s plesiosaur. Fossils were both the page numbers in a great history book and the most remarkable actors in that newly discovered history. As Buckland noted, 

… the documents of geology record the warfare of ages antecedent to the creation of the human race, of which in their later days the geologist becomes the first and only historiographer. And the documents of his history are not sculptured imitations of marble, but they are the actual substance and bodies of the bones themselves, mineralized and converted to imperishable stone. 

(Rupke 1983: 60)

His counterpart in Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick, was similarly taken with the historical implications: 

Phenomena like these have a tenfold interest, when regarded as the extreme link of a great chain, binding the present order of things to that of older periods in which the existing forms of animated nature seem one after another to disappear . 

(Sedgwick 1830)

This was a fundamentally new intellectual world and individuals rushed in to stake a claim (Knell 2000). Those who could succeed in this world required a number of qualities as regards social group and income, but they were also required to be great communicators. Buckland, Sedgwick and Lyell certainly possessed these attributes. Participants were keen to reap the social rewards of participation, to grow an audience, and thus naturally acquire an influential place in an enlarged science. Even in 1830, the language was infectious and could effortlessly construct images to appeal to the contemporary mind; mere non-descript fragments emerged from the page as ‘winged dragons from fabulous legends’ (Lyell 1826b: 524). The world of human antiquities, by comparison, paled: ‘with how much intenser feelings of wonder and humility must the Geologist view these interesting discoveries, which place before him not the relics of a departed age, but the petrified mementos of a former world!’ (York Courant, 27 September 1831). 

In this period then, the value of the fossil was extended, but what I have described thus far is a rather unremarkable interpretation. We have long known something of the science’s fashionability, its fossil discoveries, and the impact of Smith’s big idea. This interpretation does not take us far from established discourses of the history of science. But what if we step out of the science, its ideas and its popularity and consider the fossil as an object and place it in a world of institutions? Let us imagine that our object was found on the Yorkshire coast and that, perhaps in order to reap its novelty or scientific value, the finder decides to give it to a local museum. There were plenty from which to choose: Leeds, York, Scarborough, Whitby, Hull, Wakefield and Sheffield could each offer such a repository, though they were not all equal in this regard. There is also one other complication we would need to consider: these were not public museums in the modern sense. Rather, these museums belonged to private philosophical societies which had sprung up across Britain in the 1820s. What could our fossil mean now?

To answer that question, we need to select a specific museum as, while all shared some common characteristics, each was the product of its own geography. Previous histories of these societies have tended to underplay or simply not detect the role of the emergent science of geology in their birth and development. The Yorkshire Philosophical Society in York, for example, openly admitted to being principally a geological society. Those societies in Scarborough and Whitby, and in many other parts of the country, also placed geology well ahead of their other interests. The Kirkdale discoveries notably stimulated the birth of many Yorkshire societies and several appeared at the same moment, each competing with its neighbours for the status and resources (collections) available to those who are first. The formation of a York society was already being discussed, unknown to the local newspaper’s editor, when he commented on the formation of a rival society in Sheffield: 

Do not these useful institutions, which are daily forming around us, convey a severe reproof to the tardiness of our own city? York…presents none of the characteristics of an enlightened and scientific people. Her mental energies are either suffered to lay dormant, or only exerted in solitary and unassisted instances. 

(York Courant, 24 December 1822)

At the heart of the larger societies – such as that in York – was a core membership, usually composed of honorary officers and curators supported by a paid curator who attempted to turn their leisure interests into real science. However, viewed holistically these societies were rather more interested in the ‘notion of science’ – as cultural signifier and cultivating influence – than in real scientific output, such as the production of scientific papers. As a reporter for the York Courantobserved in his best – twice published – prose: 

The museum standing between the mouldering remains of Roman strength and grandeur, and the venerable ruins of a now desolated Christian temple, and rearing its front above the crumbling walls of dilapidated palaces, whose dark outlines were dimly shadowed forth by the solitary lanterns scattered through the grounds, whilst a halo of light emanating from the gas within rendered its proportions distinctly visible, forced upon the mind the imperishable nature of “science”… 

(York Courant, 27 September 1831)

It was not, however, necessarily an indication of superficiality to value science for its image. Image construction was important both to civic society and to the individual, not merely for puff and pose but because it could affect one’s material and social prospects. In the setting of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, it provided a motive for social relations on both sides: those who wished to rise and those who wished to be seen as patron. The society was built from the top down, first locating its aristocratic patrons and then its president and vice presidents from the gentry and country elite. A representative portion of the nation’s scientific literati were then made honorary members together with collectors who would help fill the society’s museum. The society in Sheffield used the same methods: ‘From the respectable names already entered as subscribers, there can be no doubt that the projected institution will meet with that patronage which will ensure its success.’ (York Courant, 24 December 1822). By these means the societies constructed a honey pot to attract an established elite and social climbers in a country experiencing the rapid emergence of a self-made middle class who wished to join the establishment (Bentley 1985: 21; Dinwiddy 1986: 2).

In York, the society’s core membership was composed of those who patronized other cultural and charitable projects in the city and county, such as the theatre and schools. In that sense these were already men of power, though they were not of the same religious or political persuasion, and there was no single institution in which to house them. This power distribution was not, for example, adequately represented in the governing Corporation of York; as, before the reform acts of the 1830s, this latter relic of a bygone age operated on long-established nepotism and self interest. York, however, had long been considered a Whig stronghold. In contrast, Scarborough’s corrupt corporation had long been in Tory hands, its incestuous practices stretching back over centuries (Binns 2003:159). Until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the new philosophical societies therefore provided a forum for the civic elite. Effectively, they were local parliaments. They were inclusive organizations and, unlike contemporary legislation, made no distinctions on the basis of religion or, indeed, politics. To foster this inclusive forum, politics and religion were banned as topics of discussion. Instead, these subjects were replaced by the natural sciences, and particularly geology: it was topical and fashionable, it provided opportunities for significant discovery and a vehicle for oratory and debate, it was inexpensive and, critically, it was politically and religiously neutral. 

However, banning politics did not make these organizations apolitical. Externally, the societies fostered an image of civic cultivation. Whitby could proudly claim, for example: ‘This important discovery has excited intense interest in the literary world our fossil crocodile being superior to any kind now existing in Britain or perhaps any other country’ (Anon. 1825). However, internally, these societies were strongly individualistic. While this resulted in inevitable disputes over the interpretation of scientific evidence, it also meant that the society and its museum were very much about social positioning, identity creation, network building and various kinds of liaison. And if the attractions of science, the necessities of city and county politics, and the honey-pot of social elevation were not sufficient to pull together a coherent group, then there were also the external pressures of a country ill-served on a long list of issues by the Westminster parliament (Dinwiddy 1986: 11-12). 

Nor could the groundswell for reform be ignored. The growth of Manchester outstripped that of all other towns and cities, but similarly in Yorkshire, Leeds grew at a prodigious pace compared to the county town of York. This brought with it poor working conditions, low wages, and exploitative employers – the conditions for political dissatisfaction. Membership of the philosophical societies was politically mixed but included a large number who were pro-reform: reform of both national and local electoral representation. Scarborough’s society was led by Sir John Johnstone and Sir George Cayley, both reformists. Similarly, Lord Milton, a political liberal and one of the most powerful and popular politicians in the country, was soon installed as President of the York society. In contrast, the York society’s patron, the Archbishop of York, and father of the society’s first president, William Vernon Harcourt, found his palace under assault by an angry mob of several thousand who broke his windows, vandalized his gardens and burnt his effigy, when the Reform Bill failed to be passed in May 1832. 

Regardless of party politics, these societies were peopled by individuals wedded to notions of change and progress, at a time when both national and local governance seemed incapable of moving into the modern age, and when civic and rural society seemed increasingly unstable. And, if still further encouragement was needed, there was also a sense that Britain was in competition with its neighbours, and that actions locally to address such deficiencies as science would ultimately improve the nation’s competitiveness and greatness. 

It is in this vastly expanded world that our fossil would arrive in York. But still we have not expanded our view sufficiently. Placing a material object in this world adds still further to the complexity. In the 1820s, fossils were arriving in York almost daily and by various routes, utilizing a network of contacts and drawing upon a range of social and commercial relationships (Figure 3.2). Each linkage in the network, whether between the included (i.e. a member of the society), or between the included and excluded (primarily on grounds of class), saw a social transaction (with its indebtedness engineering, and manipulation of value and perception). The Society needed to play a complex social game in order to achieve its multiple and interrelated objectives. The ultimate repayment – excepting those who received a direct payment for fossils – was recognition.

Figure 3.2 The flow of fossils into York in the 1820s and 1830s.

What, then, would it mean to find a nodule in this world? We know the answer to this question precisely and many times over. Perhaps one of the best examples comes not from Yorkshire but from the tiny northern Scottish town of Cromarty. Here, and later in Edinburgh, the former stonemason and erstwhile banker, Hugh Miller, became one of Scotland’s most celebrated authors of popular non-fiction, a great campaigner on numerous subjects, a newspaper editor and much more besides, and we might argue that his break came, in large part, from breaking open nodules. In these, he found extraordinary tortoise-like fish which he described in his first book on Scottish legends and myths (Miller 1835) and recounted again in one of his most famous books, The Old Red Sandstone

The first nodule laid open contained a bituminous-looking mass, in which I could trace a few pointed bones and few minute scales. The next abounded in rhomboidal and finely-enamelled scales, of much larger size and more distinct character. I wrought on with the eagerness of a discoverer entering for the first time in a terra incognita of wonders.

(Miller 1841: 130)

Miller dreamed of being a great Scottish poet – the equivalent perhaps of William Cowper, one of his English favourites – but he lacked the necessary economy of words and found instead an extraordinary ability with prose which placed the reader in the landscape and in imagined fossil pasts (Knell and Taylor 2006). Through the finding of fossils a man could rise up in society in a variety of ways each finding his own route. Miller was not alone in using fossils to locate a literary path, though no other writer integrated the geological past so seamlessly into the mind of Victorian Britain (Taylor in press).

Now, if we consider our nodule again, in this expanded scientific world, perhaps we can see that the nodule, unopened with its contents concealed, is a supremely powerful thing. It is at least as powerful, in terms of its contribution to scientific progress, as the nodule which has already been split, its fossil contents studied and published. In that moment, before the nodule is broken open, we see its true potential. It is that same moment that occurs before the consumption of any thing: a moment of anticipation, before reality provides a slap in the face (Campbell 1987). In this moment, the thing within isn’t any one thing but everything: it doesn’t need to belong to the real, it can be fantastic, mythological, its possibilities only limited by imagination – particularly at this time when the fossil world was only partially known and understood. This fantastic thing conjured up in the mind is not fantastic because of the former life it might reveal but because its finding may result in the intellectual, social and material transformation of the finder. 

The museum succession

So the fossil, in the early nineteenth century subconscious, was rather more than it might now seem and, indeed, I hope I have established that a study of the consumption of fossils can permit us to understand the cultural depth of geology. The same might be acquired through studying the museum, and it is to this institution that I now wish to turn in order to locate change in the culture of geology during the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. In order to do so, we must examine the succession of institutions produced to support the developing science, in the belief that the institution society (i.e. the wider community) chooses to build is itself indicative of its disciplinary, social and individual values and perceptions (its subconscious). Firstly, I should point out that each incarnation of the museum was not an evolution of the concept but the result of reflection on all that had gone before; the product of that reflection was sometimes a revolutionary break and at other times a re-interpretation. By locating the values embedded in the founding moment, one might detect change in the science itself – change brought about not by any intellectual paradigm shift but by the changing politics of participation.

In order to give some consistency to the survey that follows, it is helpful to follow the development of these institutions through the experiences of a single individual. John Phillips, who was born on Christmas Day, 1800, is particularly useful for this purpose because he became closely associated with the professionalization of the science and with its museum aspects (Morrell 2005). Out of financial necessity his career was very much geared to the changing opportunities the science threw up. His natural talents, peculiar apprenticeship, eloquence, modesty and diplomacy enamoured him to his contemporaries; he became the perfect employee even before the science had established a consistent means of employment. Phillips was adaptable, and from the outset very much the model of the educated middle-class professional who would people the country’s public institutions later in the century; Phillips was not the product of an old conservatism. 

The first museums Phillips encountered were those of private gentlemen. These were essentially the products of an eighteenth-century approach to natural history, and fossils sat within these collections as biological, rather than geological, entities. In 1808, Phillips was orphaned and came under the guardianship of his uncle William Smith who was then a successful mineral surveyor, reaping the practical rewards of his discovery (discussed above). Although Smith began disseminating his idea almost immediately and largely by word of mouth, and particularly utilizing his own collection, his discovery had not been accompanied by a clap of thunder. There had been no geological revolution. Rather the idea seeped out, from 1799 onwards, into the emergent community of dilettante geologists. Nevertheless, Smith was relatively prosperous and he ensured that his nephew gained a good education. However, by Phillips’s thirteenth year, both Smith and the school were in financial decline, and Phillips was sent to study under Smith’s friend the gentleman naturalist Benjamin Richardson near Bath (Morrell 2005: 13). 

Here Phillips learned the gentlemanly science of collections: its language and authors, methods and resources. He later reflected on this period: 

… to his talk on plants, shells, and fossils, to his curiously rich old library, and sympathy with all good knowledge, I may justly attribute whatever may be thought to have been my own success in following pursuits which he opened to my mind. 

(Anon. 1874: 597)

This phase of his education, was, however, short, and a year later he joined his now impoverished uncle in London. Here, one of Phillips’s first jobs was to identify and label Smith’s collection of fossils prior to its sale to the British Museum (Eyles 1967). This was the lowest period in Smith’s career, although it was prefaced by the publication of a remarkable geological map, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland (1815) – the first modern national geological map of any country – and illustrated explanations of his geological methods (Eyles 1969). These ventures did nothing to mitigate his financial insecurity, and he was soon forced to quit London for the North before his published work could bring him notice, but not before enduring a spell in debtors’ prison.

Another kind of geology had begun when Phillips was only seven. This was a new socialized – but yet strongly individualistic – gentlemanly geology constructed by the Geological Society of London, the first national geological society in the world. It began well enough, adopting a strongly empirical methodology. This new science of ‘geology’ was the society’s to develop – it was the membership’s amusement, it was their geology, and the members begged, borrowed and stole information and ideas with impunity. To their eyes this was just a social pursuit though they had hopes for its potential. Initially, in a science and Society then lacking recognition, geological intelligence was a relatively weak currency. Indeed, in 1807, who could say what the new science would become? It had little language of its own, and no single theoretical outlook. Many thought its future might be found in the study of mineral collections. Others thought the future lay in artistic illustration (Knell 2000). In time, however, with the addition of wealthy, empowered, young and enthusiastic members, the Society’s geology became geology in general, and the Society – or rather its individual members – became legitimizers of practice by default. Built around individualism and empiricism, this society established an internal culture built around discovery and open competition. In time this broke out into open warfare, especially as the competition became funnelled into solving a reducing list of great geological opportunities. This competitive individualism, in the vast new intellectual territory which opened up, where so little was settled, became the engine which drove British geology forward but at a considerable price. Phillips did not know this world until his late 20s or early 30s, when it had begun to take on absurd characteristics. He noted on one trip to London, ‘The jealousy among the men of Science here is wonderful and you feel to walk on a cavity, and to be grasped by a hand of friendship no firmer than a ghost’s shadow’ (Edmonds 1975: 273). Another of the new geologists, George Cumberland noted, ‘The fault of the age is jealousy of discovery, men are every day tripping one another up, there is too little honour among us, and too much setting up of Gods’ (Knell 2000: 32). Buckland warned others of this competitive world in 1839: ‘there are living as well as fossil sharks with prodigiously voracious teeth’ (Morrell and Thackray 1981: 424).

This, however, takes us a little ahead of ourselves: in the first twenty years of the century geology made steady but unremarkable progress. It was in the early 1820s that the field began to make a more striking social impact. I have already mentioned the philosophical societies, which formed in most major towns and cities across the country. The timing had much to do with towns protecting local treasures and, particularly in Yorkshire, with the sensationalism of the Kirkdale discoveries. I have already discussed something of the politics of these institutions, but I have not mentioned that by this time Smith and Phillips became almost permanently resident in Yorkshire, there transformed into peripatetic lecturers and curators. Hawking his ideas around the philosophical societies, the anecdotal Smith, ably supported by his eloquent disciple, had a revolutionary impact. Communities were converted overnight to the new utilitarian potential of fossils as time markers. It gave local ‘philosophers’ an ideal science: purposeful and within reach of the everyman. It was here that Smith was finally raised shoulder high, the iconic father of an English science (Morrell 2005: 73). 

By the 1830s, the more straightforward strata were largely understood and mapped, although often only coarsely. Refinement of the understanding of these rocks became a secondary consideration, and was perceived as second-class science (Bulwer-Lytton 1830). The cutting edge of geology continued to shift. It could now be drawn as a ‘Western Front’ separating the known world of lowland England from a geological wilderness of complex folded, faulted and metamorphosed rocks in Devon and Cornwall, Wales, and Cumberland. It was to these that certain members of the Geological Society now turned their attentions. In Devon as elsewhere in these territories, there were no society collections to help; only the collections of private individuals. When the metropolitan geologists failed to crack Devon’s complex geology and developed into bickering factions, local collectors began to foster their own ambitions. They had hoped to ride to fame on the coattails of whichever London geologist might resolve the controversy – this, they understood, was the way the science was prosecuted, with every ‘organism’ in the science’s ecology having its own particular role. But now there grew a sense that their own musings on the subject were equally valid. Such thinking, of course, might have seemed quite natural in a Britain where liberal interests were overriding entrenched conservatism in a succession of reforming acts of parliament. The warning signs that the science was becoming overtaken by a new democratic popularism are apparent in Cambridge academic William Whewell’s and astronomer John Herschel’s opinions that science should be interpreted by learned and perhaps institutionalized experts (Yeo 1986: 268). Phillips, too, saw the landscape changing, and a gulf emerging between the local fact collector, and those who made true science (Knell 2000: 167). Elsewhere, local geologists were also rethinking the limited rewards of their subservient role (Thackray 1979; Torrens 1990). Men such as Roderick Murchison demonstrated that through the collection, curation and publication of fossils an individual could produce founding concepts with all the merits of universal laws. These laws could then be used to claim and name major portions of time and space. This ability to invent such universal laws, although seen as desirable and perhaps inevitable in the early years of the Geological Society ([Fitton] 1817:72), had only become a reality in the 1830s. This began with the eventual reconstitution, by this Society, of Smith as the founder of an English science of geology. Indeed, Smith’s fossil utilitarianism was to be regarded as the most significant and fundamental contribution to the science for the first century of its modern existence. Utilizing Smith’s methods, Murchison had given a large sequence of rocks the name Silurian. In doing so he moved beyond the arcane detail of lithology and fossils, to more conceptual views of Nature, to something for wide public digestion. In many respects Murchison’s (1835) generalisable world of the Silurian was no less capable of sensation than Buckland’s cave of more familiar hyenas. Lyell’s reclamation of James Hutton’s ‘uniformitarian’ ideas and reworking of countless examples of geological processes similarly permitted the construction of a monumental work but one that was, however, entirely accessible to the general reader (Lyell 1830-1833). Murchison’s success relied not only on the ideas of Smith but also on the networking model so effectively exploited by the Geological Society and its philosophical society imitators, and his ability to master the general and over the particular.

However, the assurances that geology could achieve progress through a reward system based on individualism and recognition had pushed the science to a point of high tension which came to a head in Devon. Unfortunately for this heroic and individualistic world of science, the government’s first experiment in funding the new science, represented by the one man geological survey of Henry De la Beche, with Phillips as an external helper, took place in Devon, where De la Beche became one of the chief protagonists. As the controversy played out on the public stage of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, so De la Beche became increasingly worried for his new enterprise and saw the fault in the science’s competitive culture: ‘To advance science we must allow men to work from all sorts of motives, but “every gentleman for his peculiar fame” is sad work’ (Knell 2000: 232). However, the survey survived and it did so in expanded form, institutionalized as the Geological Survey of Great Britain. So when the Survey entered Wales in the early 1840s, it did so as a company of men within which the whole culture of geology from fossil collecting and mapping, to direction, debate and publication, was internalized. Almost immediately, this new way began to be perceived as a better way, and the ambitions of both gentleman geologist and local philosopher began to dissolve. 

The institutional impact of this change was profound. De la Beche soon found himself in charge of a growing empire of publicly-funded geological institutions which culminated in the establishment of a new national museum – the Museum of Practical Geology – in 1851. What underpinned these developments was a new belief that government could fund public institutions without risk of corruption. Before reform it was an open secret that ‘jobbery’ – self-interest, nepotism and corruption – was rife. Reform put in place mechanisms to contain the opportunities for corruption, though never perfectly so. Nevertheless, the landscape had changed: geology was institutionalized and inevitably professionalized in a way it had not previously been; it no longer required a free economy based on fame from discovery.

In what sense, then, can museums and fossils – situated in their broader social context – tell us of this disciplinary revolution, a revolution that was political rather than a shift of intellectual paradigm? Geology had undergone a political change and one that both reflected the national trend towards public institutionalization and professional employment, but which also utilized this trend in order to rest control of geology from the anarchic democracy of the masses. What I want to do now is review this period of change again but this time try to see it in terms of the relationships between the science, the individual and the socialized aspects of society (including the production of its institutions).

Mapping the politics of knowledge

Whether we consider the practical man’s (Smith’s) collection or the gentleman naturalist’s (Richardson’s) collection we essentially see a personal ‘museum’ which represents the values and personal knowledge of the individual. This is not to dismiss external influences, but collection building is here the activity of an individual, though clearly it reflects wider social norms. The collection permitted the man to make and represent himself, whether to potential clients, students, visitors or neighbours. Figure 3.3 suggests a relationship between these things, with ‘geology’ essentially shaped by a personal perception, and the museum a personal representation of that understanding. 

Figure 3.3 The private cabinet circa 1805. Here ‘geology’ is personally understood, and the museum is a representation of that understanding.

These personal ‘museums’ did not die out with the emergence of more socialized and structured institutions. However, the rise of these communal ventures undoubtedly altered public perceptions of the individual collector, and in many cases altered the collectors themselves. If an individual was interested in the representative qualities of collections and collecting, then involvement in a socialized and networked venture would surely open up new opportunities for participation. The formation of the Geological Society saw these individualistic gentlemanly interests and values brought together into an institution which valued evidence and individualism but with a greater emphasis on performance. Its membership had quite varying views on what would constitute the new geological science, but they shared a belief that a properly formulated museum was key to locating an empirical truth. As Figure 3.4 shows the science was here internalized – legitimized within a private club which both made it and kept possession of it. 

Figure 3.4 The Geological Society of London, circa 1810. In the early days of the Society there was no single notion of geology; the discipline was embryonic and indefinite. Individuals and factions managed their own perceptions but shared the museum as a repository and as a representation of the empirical truth of material things. The operation of this geological world was with a private club – wider society was excluded.

By the 1820s, the science was rapidly gaining popularity, helped by spectacular and accessible discoveries and the still new ‘everyman’ geology of Smith. Inevitably, the new philosophical societies began to shape their own science according to the social and political needs of their location. Thus the historian sometimes finds the persistence of rather outdated views depending upon each society’s links into and respect for the nascent science of the Geological Society or practical men like Smith and others. In Leeds and Hull, for example, presidents opened proceedings with the kind of ‘Theory of the Earth’ fashionable in an earlier era. In Whitby, there was a pocket of biblical literalism which saw the Flood of Genesis as an explanation for its local rocks, while one of its most proficient artisan collectors remained convinced that the Earth was flat. However, most local natural philosophers rapidly adopted a shared conception of the science built on Smith’s ideas – ideas which even then were not wholly adopted by the Geological Society of London. Figure 3.5 shows this shared conception of the science in an institution shaped by the needs of wider society. Here geological engagement could not be separated from civic and individual ambition, both of which saw social elevation as being central to existence. To achieve these social ends, societies were willing to recognize and legitimize a diversity of roles and practices from shopping to field excavation, from dilettante gift-giving to the solution of local geological puzzles, from publisher of original findings to orator of derivative views. The museum, composed of what were indisputably real things, was a key stabilizing influence within the organization, just as the philosophical society itself acted to bring political stability at a time of social tension. 

Figure 3.5 The northern philosophical societies circa 1824. Under the influence of William Smith, the societies were plugged into a shared conception of geology which could be understood as universal and existing within wider society. Each institution was a component in this larger geological world and its own museum was its central resource. This resource spoke the same empirical truth known to the London geologists but it also spoke of an individual’s knowledge and commitment, and of a town’s cultural status.

When the science came to investigate Devon in the 1830s, there were no stabilizing museums. The geology was difficult and geographically localized. Progress had ensured that the cutting edge of geology would end up in a geographical and temporal bottleneck in the older rocks of the West of England (Rudwick’s 1985; Knell 2000). William Buckland was well aware that the science was changing: ‘being anticipated in these days of philosophical scrambling for subjects to write about’ (Morrell and Thackray 1981:424 n.215). By this time, the rewards of participation in the science were considerable, and beyond the wildest dreams of those who founded the London society a quarter century before. The difficulty of Devonian geology, the science’s high public profile and the proven social rewards of success, produced a volatile mixture. The dispute that developed centred on the interpretation of fossils and before long the considerable social weight of the science became centred on their possession; the fossils themselves became incredibly powerful. 

The Devonian free-for-all, however, saw this hierarchy of participation challenged. The Geological Society’s nurturing of a competitive model, and an appreciative audience, ensured that the social rewards of participation overshadowed the intellectual gains. In a scientific hierarchy, the social aspects of participation can be controlled; progress involved not just the curation of fossils but also of people. The failure of ‘the wise master builders’ to resolve the geological problem meant that their power to curate the participants was also diminished. Matters were not helped by a pervasive reformist social subconscious that was doubting cliques and inherited power. Now the very thing that had permitted British science to progress so effectively was inhibiting its progress. Figure 3.6 conceptualizes what was an unhappy state of affairs for those who had invested time in the development of a largely self-funded geological career.

Figure 3.6 Geology in Devon in 1835. Here participants worked with a common conception of geology but now each faction was clustered around separate resources. In past conceptions of the science the museum’s universalism was central to stability and progress, and a political world surrounded and interacted with that resource. In Devon, the Musuem was drawn into the politics and thus could not function in this way.

On the rebound, scarred by his Devonian experiences, De la Beche acquired additional funding for a reconfigured Geological Survey in 1841. Now the entire culture of geology was internalized; all that lay outside was an audience. In some respects this internalization was a mirror of that achieved by the Geological Society, though internally the two organizations could not be more different. Individualism remained important to motivation but now it was contained and constrained by officer hierarchy and a career ladder (such as there was). Geology was back in the hands of the scientific hegemony and free from debilitating pressures of democratic influence. However, that hegemony was composed of the now fully emerged middle class bureaucrat, and although these men were often gentleman, this was no longer the gentlemanly science of earlier decades which had then fed off the social politics of participation. Now all De la Beche needed to do was play the political game known to directors of all public utilities, a political game of ensuring government patronage. In this De la Beche was unsurpassed. With the rise of publicly funded science and a way of doing which was soon understood to surpass anything that could be achieved by individuals working alone, the local philosopher and gentleman geologist faded into the background. The rage for geology had by then almost burnt itself out as a popular sport, but it had burned most ferociously in its final stages. 

Figure 3.7 The Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1842. Here the science is removed from the social world. It is internalised within a career, reporting and decision making infrastructure.

A geological revolution

What the science saw in the 1830s was a system under stress which could only be stabilized by transformation into something else. It was a catastrophic failure of a particularly British way of conducting the new science, which had located progress in individual enterprise. The necessary conditions for its success involved the internal and then external socialization of geology. A landscape rich in the intellectual building blocks of reputation emerged as a result, while the spark of sensation lifted the science out of the mundane of the everyday. To these were added the simple everyman concepts of Smith and coterie of able popularizers and romantics who made the science approachable. The emergence of provincial learned societies reflected this new subconscious and catalysed the science’s development. It placed geology on the path towards popularism – a popularism that would test the very basis of participation. Science demanded its hegemony and its lines of respect. Only by this means could it build on what had gone before, and bring together a growing body of ordered knowledge; the free market tended to subvert these goals. 

The reformulated Survey can by these means be understood as revolutionary, as a means to assert control when deference to the wise master was no longer sufficient. But the new Survey was not an untried model. In an earlier period the topographical mapmaking Ordnance Survey, which parented De la Beche’s early survey work, had long been organized around delegated team working. Geology also had its own model, located within the learned societies, where paid curators provided science and expertise. It was this particular expertise – in fossil identification – that De la Beche first acquired for his nascent Survey in the form of John Phillips. An eminently political animal, De la Beche was then able to operate within the corridors of Whitehall to grow a public empire and a recognisably modern practice of geology. His greatest achievement, however, was one of cultural revolution which determined who controlled the new science. The science had flown the nest. 

This was not a revolution in method or interpretation as both had been established long before. Indeed, the Survey in 1842 used the same working methods as were applied by Smith and Phillips a quarter of a century earlier. De la Beche’s revolution placed geology in the hands of the ‘public’ as understood in an ordered democratic state – that is funded by public taxation – rather than a public who claimed participation out of equality of opportunity. In this regard it reflected the wider revolution resulting from political reform, which created an ordered democracy and but prevented the rule of the mob. The two seem to reflect and resolve a similar struggle; they perhaps reflect the same subconscious and the wider Zeitgeist. 

Figure 3.8 The museum in local government, 1850. Here, too, control of the science is internalised in a particular strain of professional geology linked into the web of local government bureaucracy and public service. Many of those who were once engaged in a gentlemanly science now found themselves firmly isolated as relative powerless amateurs in a discipline shaped by professionals.

The museums which had been at the heart of this age may have looked very similar, but their true identities were defined by people and not, as we sometimes assume, by collections. Each was formed in response to all that had gone before; as such they ‘progressed’ by revolution rather than evolution, often overtly rejecting the values of an earlier era (Knell 1996). Political reform had, by the late 1830s, ensured that most philosophical societies no longer had the same social currency. Their museums looked to a future under local government completely divorced from the world which had produced them, and with much of their earlier meaning stripped from them. While some survived, their parent societies often merged with more fashionable archaeological societies or newer natural history societies and field clubs, under the now identifiable banner of the amateur (Figure 3.8). The fossil, which had been so fundamental to the science as a politically powerful object, had also changed. Now it was simply a fossil. As such it remained what it had always been (and rather more than it is commonly believed to be): a material signifier of the condition of science. 


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Source: Simon Knell, Suzanne MacLeod and Sheila Watson (eds. Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed (London: Routledge, 2007), chapter 3.