Museums: a timeless urban resource for the geologist?

Simon Knell

Urban museums and their geological collections evolved in another era; in response to other needs and other opportunities.  Geology has moved on from its ‘Heroic Age’ when the seeds of our contemporary museum culture were sown but has geology in the museum evolved with it?  How has the role of the museum changed in serving the local community?  What predictions can we make about the future contributions of museums to science, public education and amusement?  Recent interest in the study of the history of geology in museums is revealing some interesting insights into how museums have functioned in the past.  The collections our Victorian predecessors formed, and which we now maintain, bear the scars of love and neglect, of rigorous science and careless accumulation, of political lobbying and dynamic interpretation.

Museums exist in almost every urban landscape of Britain.  Generally occupying one of the more imposing buildings in the older quarters of our towns, they reek of the past.  In a ‘high tech’ age museums often present an image of being outmoded – no longer contemporary.  But in the last few years geology in provincial museums has undergone something of a renaissance and many have found sufficient, though often limited, funds to renovate their tired displays.  Those museums possessing a geologist remain at the heart of amateur activity – a role many first took on over a century ago.  Museums remain urban resource centres drawing on a wider geological hinterland committed to communicating geology to a wider public and supporting the progress of British geology.  But one might reasonably think that this has always been so.

Museum geology in the Heroic Age

As geology entered into the nineteenth century it was already beginning to develop its own framework for scientific study.  As the century progressed it became an increasingly powerful magnet for the cultured and wealthy classes, and for the existing scientific elite.  It revealed a British landscape extraordinarily rich and diverse in geology, but largely unexplored.  For the embryonic scientist/philosopher the opportunities for discovery were boundless, and the products of these discoveries remarkable.  By the 1820s geology was starting to become extremely fashionable – a fashion which continued to develop over succeeding decades.  Among the country’s upper echelons an interest in, and knowledge of, this science became as an essential sign of sophistication as did conversance with the Classics or European languages.

In part this popularity was fed by the remarkable discoveries of these decades – of marine and flying reptiles, of the dinosaurs, of hyenas living in Yorkshire.  For the informed local gentleman the regional works of Gideon Mantell, John Phillips and others were at last beginning to provide a framework for understanding local rocks and fossils, and also a model for studies elsewhere.  Palaeontological and geological syntheses, including elementary texts, presented this as a new and developing science to which anyone could contribute.  And if, for some, the science itself wasn’t sufficiently engrossing the small group of eminent and publicly well-known scientists who played the leading roles were only too happy to court controversy and engage in lively public debate.  

Geology, unlike the inaccessible and abstract sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry, was tangible, comprehensible, romantic and everywhere.   It had yet to accrue its plethora of jargon terms; its ideas, which were the products of simple inductivism, were conveyed in elegant descriptive prose often tinged with varying degrees of Romanticism.  Geology permeated deeply into the leisure activities of the cultured.  Morrell (1994) suggests that the “perpetual excitement” surrounding geology was in part due to its economic benefits, its interest to the traveller, its adaptation to any scale of study and to its relationship with religion. 

It was in this scientific climate that the many existing museum collections were formed.  Geological advance and opportunity, combined with widespread interest in natural history gave birth to the literary and philosophical movement which swept through much of Britain, but which was particularly strong in Yorkshire.  Provincial Britain offered such unparalleled opportunity for geological research that every rock in every parish had the potential for turning this new science literally upside down.

The new provincial societies could have followed a number of national models but more than any they emulated the Geological Society which since its establishment in 1807 had become not only the liveliest debating house in London (Rudwick 1985) but also the national repository for collections associated with geological advance.  For a few decades a geological research network was to spread throughout Britain.  Established in the expanding urban centres, the provincial learned societies provided a focus for the intellectual pursuits of the growing middle classes – the local gentry, medical men and clergy.  They played a vital role in feeding local intelligence to the higher science; the doyens of the science could reward the local society with up-to-date intelligence, collections or simply by association.  Provincial philosophers followed research projects developed locally and those which imitated work undertaken elsewhere.  The new and fashionable science of geology created the excitement that could keep a society enthralled; the society men eager to discover their own immortality built collections which fed the research machine.  The interaction was both symbiotic and catalytic.  Never have museums been so closely intertwined with pioneering contemporary science.

While the  societies conformed to a general pattern and shared similar objectives and methods (Allen 1976), they also differed from each other significantly.  These differences were primarily a reflection of local personalities and the size, and composition, of the social strata from which they were formed, which itself was a reflection of the urban landscape.  Relative status could be measured in the size of the museum building, the number of members or its links with the scientific elite.  For those societies which could not compete on these terms a coup might be staged by acquiring more perfect and spectacular collections of fossils.  “Such collections… not only exhibit the natural productions of the province in which they are situated, but they may be taken as standards by which to gauge the scientific spirit of the neighbourhood” (Rudler 1877).

In a county with a society in an urban centre of any size, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society reigned supreme.  The societies of the smaller towns of Whitby and Scarborough were definitely second tier despite having, on their doorstep, some of the most accessible resources of fossils in Britain.  There were simply insufficient numbers of local philosophers in these small towns to provide the critical mass necessary for success on the scale of that seen in York.  The York society also benefited from dynamic and influential members including William Venables Vernon Harcourt  – a man of great ambition and many useful contacts – and also John Phillips who rapidly rose from humble beginnings to become a central figure in British geology.  York was a centre for science, and while valuable collections and expertise developed on the coast, these smaller and poorer societies often relied upon the York philosophers for intelligence and contacts with mainstream science.

For the Yorkshire Society there was no more important objective than revealing the geology of the county and to achieve this it reached out from its urban base to gather geological specimens from all parts of Yorkshire.  Composed of an enthusiastic group of members – each wishing the adulation of his colleagues or better still to uncover a fact that might contribute to the national picture – the collections grew rapidly.  Increasingly powerful and assertive in its influence the Yorkshire Museum became a particularly attractive repository for the finds of collectors often in preference to the smaller, more local, society.  Placed in the York collections, there was a real chance that the specimen would be seen and described by science and reflect glory on the finder.  If, like the Vicar of Wakefield, a collector was able to donate massive coal measure plants six feet high and thirty inches in diameter, to the major local museums, publication was hardly necessary as the collector had created his own imposing monument.

However, the heyday of the philosophical society was coming to an end by 1850.  The real science of geology was becoming increasingly rigorous and systematic, and the publications produced less approachable and more specialised.  At the heart of this professionalisation was Henry de la Beche’s Geological Survey which was establishing a new level of resolution for data capture.  The once burgeoning philosophical societies and the museums they created were beginning to founder.  The magnificent museums they had created had presented them with severe financial difficulties and a resource they had difficulty managing.  They had believed that they were creating permanent institutions but chose objectives which were achievable and therefore ephemeral;  in the case of the York society Phillips had completed his two volumes on the geology of Yorkshire by the mid 1830’s.  For a time their collections were items of news but eventually they were not.  The provincial youth were not attracted to these ageing and increasingly conservative gatherings,  and indeed society itself had moved on in a period of massive social change.  “The tight grip of tradition had been largely broken, and that ‘ancient wisdom’ in matters of belief, values and social relationships was being increasingly questioned” (Harrison 1971).

Scarborough Literary and Philosophical Society provides a particularly dramatic example of the lifecycle of these institutions.  The gentry of Scarborough had been seriously discussing the establishment of a museum in the town since 1820.  Within two years of the establishment of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1827 the remarkable Rotunda was built – a building constructed in the round so as to provide the best opportunities for the stratigraphic arrangement of fossils.  However, the building, which was soon considered too small for meetings or the display of the growing collections, placed a heavy burden on the Society funds.  Constantly short of money, it was nearly a decade before the cases could be fitted, and when important and desirable local fossils became available they were unable to purchase them.  By 1842 the Society was approaching crisis and desperately attempted to attract new members.  When in 1848 the loan on the building was recalled, the embarrassed state of the institution became publicly revealed.  The museum was described as being disorganised, poorly labelled and unattractive.  Membership had been declining since 1836 – less than a decade after the institution was founded.  The Society only managed to survive by merging with the town’s archaeologists in 1853.

These declining institutions, together with more recently formed examples some of which were established under legislation allowing the local authorities to provide museums, became the brunt of considerable criticism throughout the latter half of the century.  They lacked organisation, control of collecting and informed interpretation (Manton 1900; Scharff 1912).  Some philosophical societies survived, but their museums became considerable burdens and most were eventually passed to other bodies.

The second coming

As any society officer will be aware it is far easier to establish an interest group than to maintain it.  What is new is often fashionable, and there is glory in the founding and considerable control in defining objectives. After a time fashion and glory are lost, and growing conservatism prove a major obstacle to change.  So it was when interest in natural history became renewed in the 1860s.  Rather than modernise the philosophical societies, new natural history societies and field clubs were established (Anon 1870a; Allen 1976).  While many of these wished to take advantage of new travel opportunities and not be encumbered with museums, these bodies soon found that museums were a vital component in assisting in the study of natural history (Anon 1871).  However, unlike their philosophising predecessors these new societies were more likely to pressure their local authority into establishing a museum.  This became a function of natural history societies even into the twentieth century.  Many of these societies were established in towns which had been too small to participate in the philosophical movement forty years earlier.  As the century progressed and the urban centres grew, a critical mass was achieved which burst forth as a natural history society.  And geology – its materials so easily collected and preserved – became a key element in their activities and the museums they encouraged.

These societies were not only to be found in the rapidly expanding industrial towns.  One of the most notoriously poor museums of the period existed in Canterbury (Anon. 1871).  Canterbury Museum had been established by the town in 1847, one of the first under the Museums Act of 1845.  Its rapid establishment had been achieved by taking over the town’s moribund philosophical society collection.  No doubt it was this that spurred the secretary of the local East Kent Natural History Society, George Gulliver (1871) to attack provincial museums in general.  “The majority of them throughout England present such examples of helpless misdirection and incapacity as could not be paralleled elsewhere in Europe”.  One option for these groups of amateur naturalists was to follow the lead taken by Folkstone Natural History Society which, in league with the town council, renovated and took partial control of the existing, ailing, museum.  The society in Canterbury was in full agreement with this approach.  This could be seen as the conservation of resources but the new breed of society was intent on following an entirely different tack to those which originally founded the collections.  Now the buzzword was education and the museum they sought to create for this purpose had no use for the type of collection popular with the philosophers – “nobody in his senses can suppose that it is either desirable or practicable for a provincial society to attempt an imitation of the vast and boundless metropolitan institution”.

The material in Canterbury and other towns which had survived the decline of the local philosophical society, and the neglect of the town council, was now to be streamlined by yet another group.  In rescuing the useful series from these poor provincial examples, a good deal of “rubbish” was likely to be encountered.  The solution to this problem: “sell it if you can, or give it away; but by all means get rid of it, and that swiftly; to which end a bonfire might be the best thing” (Gulliver 1871).  While local collections might survive, important material brought back from further afield might be considered junk – a narrow minded view of existing collections which has persisted into modern museum culture (Knell and Taylor 1991).

After the boom of interest in geology and natural history around the turn of the century the science entered another period of decline (Boswell 1941).  The loss of material from the 1920s onwards, some dating back to the earliest days of local geological exploration, was remarkable.  At this time there was no safety net: museums had not been sufficiently professionalised to be concerned about disposal and curators were often uninformed about geology; the watchdog Geological Curators Group was not to appear on the scene for many decades.  In south eastern England, Raymond Casey, of the then Institute of Geological Sciences, was a witness to the destruction and rescued considerable amounts of material including virtually the whole of the collection from Tunbridge Wells (Gill & Knell 1987).  But the neglect of geology collections, or worse, was ubiquitous (Knell 1987).

During the first half of the present century, numerous writers were attempting to explain and reverse this decline; forty years later another generation of museum geologists were explaining the decline in similar ways and suggesting surprisingly similar solutions (North, Davidson & Swinton 1941; Knell and Taylor 1989).  North (1942) saw the decline of geology as a result of a failure to understand and interpret geological material – geological material tended not to communicate in the same ways as more aesthetic and easily understood objects.  The result: “as such they are handled roughly and left lying about until what little individuality they may have had in colour or in texture is obscured by dust, so what ultimately passes for a “geological collection” in some museums is an agglomeration of dirty, inadequately labelled, and ill-chosen specimens, that might as well have been shovelled from a pile of builder’s rubbish or from a heap of roadstone for all the interest they are likely to create”.  Allan (1941:58) suggested that the inherent durability of geological materials worked against the interests of these collections.  “Requiring less attention, they got it, and, while the passage of time saw new material and new methods of preparation and exhibition introduced into other natural history departments, the rocks and the fossils remained intact and inert, sometimes almost invisible beneath the gently accumulating layers of dust”.

Doughty (1979) suggested that “one of the bleakest periods” in the history of the United Kingdom’s geological collections occurred during the early twentieth century.  Whilst it is possible to attribute much of the loss of geological collections to the present century this is in part because this knowledge remains in the folklore of the museum.  What is perhaps more surprising is that neglect has immediately followed, or even accompanied, the growth of geological collections.  The first half of the nineteenth century may have generated collections which should lie at the heart of the science but just as modern society has no way of ensuring the protection of provincial science collections, our Victorian predecessors were also unable to protect them.  The museums of the newer natural history societies, like so many before them were liable to rapid decline (Flower 1898; Torrens & Taylor 1990).  And each reuse of the collections brought with it a cleansing which was as destructive as it was revitalising.

A geologist in every museum

“What a museum depends upon for its success and usefulness is not its building, not its cases, nor even its specimens, but its curator.  He and his staff are the life and soul of the institution, upon whom its whole value depends” (Flower 1889).  For Scarborough’s first curator, John Williamson, a local collector who remained in post for more than 27 years, his job was a labour of love.  A poorly educated market gardener, already in middle age, he remained dedicated to his work despite a feeble salary (Williamson 1896).  He was not a scientist.

In contrast the Yorkshire Museum possessed the young John Phillips, the well travelled nephew of William Smith.  Phillips who had “very superior scientific attainments, is modest, sensible and popular, well contented with science and £100 a year” was the key to the society’s success.  But, perhaps surprisingly Phillips did not believe there was any merit in having a paid keeper as this meant that members then felt no obligation to the institution and were liable to follow fashion (Orange 1973).  Thus his advice to the Yorkshire Museum after he left was that they should no appoint a paid keeper.  He advised the Scarborough society similarly – suggesting a caretaker would be sufficient.  The pursuit of fashion was not something that could be fought against in the way Phillips suggested but perhaps the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society were aware of this as they never adopted his suggestion.  Indeed Pyrah (1988) believes that the relative success of geology in the nineteenth century Yorkshire Museum was due to the presence of a geologist as Keeper of the Museum.  “When in the 20th century this tradition was broken growth of the geological collections virtually ceased… [they] came to be seen as an heritage from the past rather than as an actively evolving department”.

Rudler (1877) was one of many to underline the vital importance of staff to the success of natural science museums.  Indeed it was essential for the museum to have a post for a professional curator with “an intelligent acquaintance with natural history”; a post which can be maintained as successive individuals come and go.    To William Henry Flower museums lacking a paid and knowledgeable curator were “traps into which precious objects fall only to be destroyed”.  Even a shift in the specialism or interests of the curator could have adverse effects on the collections as York found in the early twentieth century (Pyrah 1988).  Consistency in staffing was known to be vital to the survival of geology in museums from the height of the Heroic age – without it even the larger institutions were liable to the problems of the smallest.  “It is a dangerous thing for a public museum to depend thus upon the support or interest of a single individual, or even on a few amateurs, such as form our local natural history clubs: and it has indeed often happened that when the leading scientific spirit of a locality has been removed, the museum has degenerated, and lapsed into a state of neglect” (Rudler 1877).

Serving the urban community

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the museum culture was changing.  The recently completed Natural History Museum was finding opportunities for growth, and palaeontology was undergoing something of a renaissance in part induced by increased interest in evolution (Woodward 1900).  Like the natural history societies which were now in vogue, contemporary museums were seen as being of two types: those with higher scientific objectives and those rooted in formal and popular education (Anon. 1870b; Flower 1893).  

Joseph Hooker speaking to the 1868 meeting of the British Association stated that he could “never remember to have heard of a provincial museum that was frequented by schools” (Hooker 1869).  But now the local museum was being redefined as the educational museum; that formed by Hutchinson in Haslemere being the best known example .  Rather than gather local resources from their hinterland, they instead aimed to diffuse knowledge.  “The object of an educational museum should be to educate rather than collect.” (Hutchinson 1893).  Flower (1893) also recommended that municipal, school and village museums should only collect largely general educational series; “nothing else should be attempted and therefore reserve collections are unnecessary”.

Many museums were attempting to reach out to those parts of the community who through education and opportunity lacked the chance of profound study but might be more generally engaged by museum objects (Flower 1889).  However, old snobberies persisted. Woodward, for example , for example, felt “that the ‘man in the street’ did not at present seem to be a very hopeful subject in London.  He came into museums chiefly for warmth and shelter, and usually brought a good deal of dirt in with him” (Manton 1900).

Despite in some ways being a rebellion against the research oriented museums of old (Hooker 1869), the new educationally oriented geologists felt themselves unable to release their exhibits from the constraints of formal science.  A major preoccupation of the early meetings of the Museums Association was how geology collections should be laid out in museums.  In the decades when geology was fashionable and fairly exclusive there was no apparent need to communicate effectively as museum displays illustrated current items of news and a curator or member was always on hand to inform the visitor.  The philosophical museums attempted little more than to provide the vocabulary of the contemporary science (Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1828).  But now the museum going public was growing and largely uninformed about science.  Yet many geologists continued to search for the one effective and appropriate way to display collections.  Consequently, exhibits were conservative and inflexible.

A universal rule had been adopted separating local collections from “type” or “typical” series which provided more complete and general coverage of the geological principles.  To the curator of the local educational museum “It is obvious that a museum which contained only local specimens would not teach geology” (Hutchinson 1893).  “A larger museum might prefer to have a fairly representative collection of geological and zoological specimens… this should be kept altogether separate from the Local Museum, and must, of course, be arranged in strictly systematic order” (Meek 1895:156).  Arrangements were generally systematic, geographical or temporal (stratigraphic) (Rudler 1877; Dawkins 1890; 1892).  To Woodward (1900:33) there was no difference in the requirements of arrangement of objects in the galleries as compared to those in the store.

Hutchinson (1893) was one curator beginning to break the old mould by promoting the liberal use of pictorial illustration, models, casts, descriptive labels and the availability of reference texts in educational museums.  But still he arranged the collections in the limited number of ways then seen as appropriate.

A minor though fundamental and influential shift in thinking was taking place at the Natural History Museum at this time.  Buoyed up by renewed interest in evolution the Museum’s scientists began to consider how the wall which divided its research could be dismantled.  “Perpetuation of the unfortunate separation of palaeontology from biology, which is so clearly a survival of an ancient condition of scientific culture, and for the maintenance in its integrity of the heterogeneous compound of sciences which we now call “geology” the faulty organisation of our museums is in a great measure responsible” (Flower 1889).  The Natural History Museum’s limited interests in geology are reflected in this view of the science.  The first gallery to combine fossil and recent genera was the whale gallery (Woodward 1900); this, despite complete overhaul, remains the Museum’s best example of this approach.

For those, like one curator from Ipswich, who felt “there was nothing duller in the world than the specimens of fossils of various kinds to be seen in the ordinary museums” , there were growing attempts at didactic interpretation (Bather 1924).  Bather spelt out, using specific geological textbooks, how a thematic geology display was to be achieved.  The newly inspired curator then expressed concern about getting an adequate range of material to which Bather remarked rather shortly “the production of a series of fossils did not depend so much on the collection as on its curator”; the local Red Crag would provide all any museum might need  Smith (1897) similarly expressed the benefits of following the logical organisation of a textbook and one that would meet the needs of local schools.  Bather (1896) suggested that museums should not be given over to serried rows of specimens but to ideas, such as Darwinian evolution, which made people think.

Bather’s ideas were further developed by North (1928) who suggested that the failure of geology to communicate was due to: its lack of an obvious connexion with everyday life or common knowledge; a loss of a sense of wonderment; and the apparent absence of utility.  Systematic displays were still prevalent in museums; “they have a system but no soul; the specimens have names but are devoid of meaning; they demonstrate facts, but they do not tell a story” (North 1942).  It was this importance of storyline which North stressed.  Like the supporters of educational museums, and Flower and Bather before him, North saw the fundamental role of museums as the teaching of geological principles.  For this a general series remained a requirement.  Local material was an appendix to the general story and to be used to give a general picture of local geology.

A general introductory case describing the main features of geology was essential (North 1928).  North used supporting materials to illustrate and explain, much as Hutchinson had done before him.  However, despite North’s eloquence, Bather saw the interpretation as rather dry and technical (North 1931); his suggested use of real geological maps and sections would be seen as inappropriate today.  However, North’s approach was a marked improvement on anything that had been seen before and it found its way into many British museums where it dominated display until the 1970s (North et al 1941).  There were some, however, for whom attempts to enliven geological exhibits could go too far.   “Popularity is sought by catchpenny methods, such as the gem-stone exhibit, the fluorescent lamp and the diorama peepshow – mirages to lure the wandering visitor into a desert of desk cases” (Allan 1941).

The overpowering didacticism of the educational movement in museums at least led to thematic and story telling displays.  But it believed that display should be purely educational, that it could teach, and that what it would teach should be general geology.  The same displays were seen everywhere: the stratigraphic column arranged in a series of compartments; geological time as a clock; the biological classification of fossil animals; the characteristics of minerals, and so on. 

In the late twentieth century the provincial museum needed to rediscover its own identity: local geology was for many museums the reason why they existed.  Perhaps for too long provincial museums had followed the recommendations of practitioners who were not local museum geologists but there were few influential local practitioners.  To rediscover the local was to rediscover the museums roots.  “When a naturalist goes from one country to another his first inquiry is for local collections.  He is anxious to see authentic and full cabinets of the productions of the region he is visiting”  (Forbes (1854) quoted in Rudler 1877).  “It seems to me also very proper to suggest that the great value of your museum is and ought to be in its departments which illustrate your own land and sea.  General collections are not to be made or maintained except in places favourably situated”.

Museum geology into the future

Museum geology has ridden the rollercoaster of popularity and decline (Knell 1995a).  The recent recession hit museums particularly badly; few will believe that in a more professional age museums have left the rollercoaster.  At one time provincial museums were united with an embryonic and pioneering science.  Today, and indeed for more than a century, they have been more closely related to the amateur tradition.  They continue to play a role in contemporary science but mainly in those aspects which were important in the Victorian era; amateurs also continue a largely Victorian pursuit.  While education remains a goal museums have been released from the straightjackets of the past, and they are now empowered with new methods of design and interpretation as amply demonstrated in Dudley and Cardiff.

Provincial museum geologists have triumphed in recent years but they cannot be complacent.  They are still too few in number.  History shows that museums will not increase geological provision if there is not local demand; but it also shows that there will be no local demand if there is no provision (i.e. no geologist).  This is the ‘Catch-22’.  As museums enter the next century the roles of their staff will continue to be ‘professionalised’ and in the process specialist curators may go into further decline (Knell 1995b).

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Letter from W. V. Vernon Harcourt to Lord Milton, 18 January 1831. Published in Morrell and Thackray (1984).

Letter from J.Phillips to J.V.B. Johnstone 22 March 1853 (183.58) in Scarborough Rotunda Museum.

Source: Accepted manuscript for Simon J. Knell. 1996. ‘Museums: a timeless urban resource for the geologist?’ in Matthew R. Bennett, Peter Doyle, Jonathan G. Larwood & Colin Prosser (eds) Geology on your Doorstep, Geological Society of London. Do not cite the published version.