The roller-coaster of museum geology

Simon Knell

There is a strong perception that museums are primarily about history. This derives from the undoubted age of the majority of these institutions but also the relatively recent growth of history-based museums and heritage attractions, including ‘historic houses’. Even the ‘science museum’ is popularly perceived as an institution focused on the history of science and technology. These science museums communicate science but do not actively participate in it. Few sciences use collections as a scientific resource – perhaps only pathology, biology and geology.

Until the 1920s, the natural sciences dominated museum provision in Britain, and museums played an important part in the development of an understanding of this country’s natural history. The establishment of the science of geology, once the most celebrated science in Britain, and largely a British invention, relied upon museums and collections. However, with the publication of the Doughty Report in 1981 that glorious past was revealed as having been betrayed; museums had failed in their most important responsibility (Doughty 1981).

Doughty’s report motivated operations to rescue lost collections as well as a more general renaissance in museum geology: it is now better displayed; more professionally organised and increasingly popular with the public. But why hasn’t this always been so? Is this simply a temporary respite? Is geology really more ammunition for ‘declinists’ to fire at government as they have done for more than 150 years (Morrell & Thackray 1981, 47) or is its apparent fall the product of a more complex process?

The rise of museum geology

As geology entered into the nineteenth century it was just 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 1820’s, geology had worked its way into the public conscience; it occupied the conversations and correspondence of polite society. By 1840, geological meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science were attracting audiences of a thousand (Morrell & Thackray 1984, 548; Rudwick 1985, 250). Geology was the height of fashion – this was its ‘Heroic Age’. The latest thinking seemed to change with every monthly magazine – almost as rapidly as the political scene. As a sign of sophistication, it was as essential for the aristocracy, gentry and growing middle classes to express a fascination for this new science as it was to possess a knowledge of the Classics or European languages.

The popularity of geology in this period is not difficult to understand. These decades revealed a succession of remarkable discoveries including giant ‘sea dragons’, flying reptiles, extinct ‘lizards’ the size of the largest living mammal, and proof that exotic animals, such as hyenas, lived not long ago in Britain. For the provincial gentleman, works on regional geology by John Phillips, Gideon Mantell and others, provided models for imitation and a framework for local studies. The explosion of geological knowledge spawned palaeontological and geological syntheses, including elementary texts, which revealed rocks and fossils as the products of dynamic forces.

Geology opened doors not just to one new world but to many, and revealed facts more extraordinary and remarkable than anything created by contemporary fiction. Texts conveyed ideas which were both convincing and remarkable in elegant, and often Romantic, prose. No special equipment or expertise was required to retrieve some useful fact; so unknown were local terrains that no qualifications were needed to philosophise on their products. As yet unadorned with the plethora of jargon terms with which the science would soon immerse itself, inductive and descriptive, geology was accessible to all. And unlike the abstract sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry, geology and natural history were tangible, comprehensible, romantic and everywhere. Geology and natural history permeated deeply into society and became normal activities among those who had sufficient wealth for leisure.

While the ‘popular culture’ of geology filled the local scene, the science’s great dramas were played out by a small cast of eminent scientists who courted controversy and expounded facts with great eloquence. Their names became known to all – Mantell, Murchison, Buckland and others were mentioned in contemporary magazines with no need for introduction.

Morrell (1994, 312-3) suggests that the ‘perpetual excitement’ surrounding geology at this time was due to its economic benefits, its interest to the traveller, its adaptation to any scale of study and to its relationship with religion. The latter perhaps seems most surprising as it would appear that geological advance was certain to undermine literal interpretations of the Bible. Fundamentalist factions did snap at the heels of geological progress, and occasionally find their way into the debating chamber, but these were no more threatening than those which attempt to challenge the modern science (see, for example, Jones 1989). The secular science disentangled itself from religion much later; for the church-going practitioners there was no conflict. The diaries, correspondence and contemporary literature expose a beneficial bond between the science and religion. William Buckland, probably the most influential geologist among the provincial gentry at this time, expresses this most overtly: ‘When fully understood, it [geology] will be found a potent and consistent auxiliary to it [religion], exalting our conviction of the Power, and Wisdom, and Goodness of the Creator… No reasonable man can doubt that all the phenomena of the natural world derive their origins from God’ (Buckland 1836, 9).

In this optimistic scientific climate 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 opportunities for geological research it seemed that every rock in every parish had the potential for turning this new science upside down. Unlike the private museums which could be found in most British towns and cities, the philosophers were first and foremost interested in using their collections to extend knowledge, as well as to facilitate self-improvement.

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society expressed a clear primary objective: illumination of the geology of the county. This became its focus both for research and illustration in the new museum. Aware of the private museums it succeeded, the Society articulated a mature understanding of the part collections might play in its objectives: 

It is one of the principal objects of the Society to encourage a taste for natural history; and it has always proposed to effect this, both by means of lectures on the various divisions of nature, and by collections in its museum, without which lectures of this description can scarcely be given. The value of such collections is not perhaps in general sufficiently understood; and the naturalist by whom they are formed is sometimes suspected of claiming the dignity of a science for pursuits little higher than the amusements of children. If the object of a collector be no more than to accumulate and to display, he is indeed very idly employed; but if his object be to acquire or to diffuse a more perfect knowledge of the works of creation, there cannot be a more rational or a more noble pursuit. To investigate the wisdom of nature, is an employment worthy of the most exalted understanding whether that wisdom be displayed in the configuration of a planet, or in the structure of a butterfly’s wing.

(Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1828, 14)

Even in these early years, geology was very much an international research school with considerable cross-Channel and trans-Atlantic communication. In spite of this the work of British geologists dominated the science’s development. At its heart, the Geological Society provided the liveliest debating house in London (Rudwick 1985, 18), and formed a museum which became the national repository for materials derived from geological advance. The British Museum purchased numerous important geological collections at this time but it played no active role until the appointment of Richard Owen in 1856.

For a few decades a geological research network 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 – businessmen, medical men and clergy. They played a vital role in feeding local intelligence to the higher science; the doyens of the science would reward the local society with news of the latest research, collections or simply by association. The provincial philosophers followed research projects developed locally and those which emulated work undertaken elsewhere. The newly established British Association for the Advancement of Science formed a mobile focus for this research network.

The new and fashionable science of geology created the excitement required to keep a society enthralled; the society men eager to discover their own immortality built collections and provided reports which served the Heroic geologists. The interaction was both symbiotic and mutually catalytic. A framework for the investigation of British geology had evolved quite naturally, and privately funded museums were at its heart.

In their mode of operation the philosophical societies conformed to a pattern ; they shared similar objectives and methods (Allen 1976, 159). Their differences were primarily a reflection of local personalities and the size, and composition, of the social strata from which they were formed. They were an assertion of local status – ‘so well calculated to promote the credit and advantage of the town, and the intellectual improvement of its inhabitants’ (Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society 1826, 9). Relative status could be judged by the size of the museum building, the number of members or the society’s 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, however, 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, 17).

In the county of York, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society reigned supreme. The societies of the smaller towns of Whitby and Scarborough despite having, on their doorstep, some of the most accessible resources of fossils in Britain, were of a lower stratum. They struggled to maintain libraries or an interesting lecture programme. There simply were 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, through the numerous and influential contacts of William Venables Vernon Harcourt and the rapid scientific achievements of John Phillips, became a crucial link in the development of 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 geology.

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. John Dunn, fossil collector and secretary of the Scarborough Literary and Philosophical Society, feared the ‘bubble reputation’ of his society and preferred to donate important material to the rival society in York (Dunn 1830). Placed in the York collections, there was a real chance that a specimen would be seen and used by science. If geological material was not seen by the monograph writers it was never going to reflect glory on the finder. Worse still, a rival’s finds might be used instead!

Before John Phillips’ (1829) explanation of the coastal geology of Yorkshire, the Scarborough collector had little difficulty in finding fossils which had not been described – the search for new species was the principle motivation for the coastal collectors. The publication of Phillips’ book, far from dampening this urge to discover, gave the local philosophers new challenges to discover species or to prove error in those Phillips had described. By placing tempting morsels in the hands of a local society, the collector was not only more likely to have his material figured but also to encourage eminent researchers to view his personal collections where more treasures might be revealed. 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 all the museums in the region, publication was hardly necessary as the collector had built his own imposing monument.

The ‘Heroic Age’ intertwined provincial museums with pioneering scientific research in a way that was never to be seen again. They not only participated but also illustrated the advances both in static displays and in the lecture programme.

The fall of museum geology

By 1850 the real science of geology was becoming more rigorous and systematic, and its publications less approachable and more specialised. At the heart of this professionalisation was Henry de la Beche’s Geological Survey which was establishing new levels of resolution for data capture. De la Beche’s government funded Museum of Economic Geology increasingly adopted the role of repository for British geology. In a relatively short period of time the requirements of science became dissociated from the leisure interests of the populace. The once burgeoning philosophical societies and the museums they created were beginning to founder. Most had been dogged by severe financial difficulties throughout their existence. Particularly draining were the museums – often in magnificent and imposing buildings, packed to the gunwales with material, the care of which would take an army of curators.

The infectious excitement with which the museums had been built began to subside as the mainstays of the societies left or died. They had believed they were creating permanent institutions – ‘not only in the present day but in future ages’ (Whitby L&PS 1826, 9) – but chose objectives which were achievable and therefore ephemeral. The Yorkshire Philosophical Society had, through the work of John Phillips, achieved its major objective by the mid 1830s. For a time the collections they amassed contained items of news, but soon they were news no longer; they were transformed instead into less evocative reference materials. Having fed on the excitement of contemporary science and their role within it, the societies would have difficulty surviving without it. If geology was a catalyst to their development, they too contributed to the advance of the science to an extent that it soon outgrew its amateur roots.

Despite continued fears of revolution the philosophers of late Georgian Britain were also unable to predict the massive social changes which were to take place in the next quarter century. ‘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, 144). The scientific world was no less politicised and mirrored the wider changes in society (Morrell & Thackray 1981; MacLeod 1983; Desmond 1989). But while a more professional, and increasingly publicly funded, age dawned for geology, its heritage remained in the hands of amateur custodians in the ‘private sector’.

Some philosophical societies survived but most eventually gave over their museums to the local authorities now empowered to provide a museum service. ‘Once removed from their originators, even the residual sense of purpose, identity, and obligation felt by the ailing societies was lost’ (Doughty 1979, 19). For some museums the loss of integrity came very soon after their establishment. 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. Little progress was made until this same group came together to form the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1827. Within two years they had built the remarkable Rotunda – a ‘building in the round’ designed specifically for the stratigraphic arrangement of fossils – an idea suggested by William Smith who had become increasingly attached to the town. Despite the free supply of stone from Sir John V.B. Johnstone, the Society’s patron, the building, which was soon considered too small for meetings or the adequate display of the collections, placed a heavy burden on Society funds. It had been built with a loan of £500, secured by 19 signatures, on which interest was paid annually from subscriptions. Constantly short of money, the Society devised numerous ways to generate income but it was nearly a decade before the interior was finished. They were also unable to purchase important and desirable local fossils when they were discovered and so could neither fulfil their collecting obligation or raise their profile.

By 1842 the Society was approaching crisis. A circular was produced to rally support: ‘the Council have to regret that the Institution does not receive that support from the town and neighbourhood generally which its acknowledged utility would seem to demand and further that owing to deaths, resignations and various other causes they seem to notice a considerable decrease in the amount of annual subscriptions’ (Hulme 1842). The crisis had deepened by 1848 when the initial loan on the building was recalled (SLPS Minute book, meeting of 5 October 1848, Scarborough Public Library). The embarrassed state of the institution was then revealed in a public meeting chaired by Johnstone. The collections were found to be disorganised, poorly labelled and unattractively displayed, there was poor financial control and the membership was rapidly declining due to general dissatisfaction with the running of the institution. While other society museums had increased their admission receipts since the opening of the railway, Scarborough’s had declined since 1836. An attempted rejuvenation failed and by 1853 the Society saw merger with the more fashionable Archaeological Society as its only chance of survival. In its new form the Society and its museum survived into the twentieth century when management of the latter was passed to the town (Scarborough Museum correspondence 1853).

The neglect already apparent in Scarborough’s collections was not uncommon even in 1850 particularly in the small museums now springing up. Edward Forbes, one of the new breed of professional geologists, speaking on the educational role of museums in 1854 described a fairly typical museum scene: 

Unfortunately not a few country museums are little better than raree-shows. They contain an incongruous accumulation of things curious or supposed to be curious, heaped together in disorderly piles, or neatly spread out with ingenious disregard of their relations. The only label attached to nine specimens out of ten is ‘presented by Mr or Mrs So-and-so’; the object of the presentation having been either to cherish the glow of generous self-satisfaction in the bosom of the donor, or to get rid – under the semblance of doing a good action – of rubbish that had once been prized, but latterly stood in the way.

(in Rudler 1877, 20)

Forbes’ words were applicable to the private museums established before the philosophical revolution, and to those now established with public funds. They would be echoed throughout the remainder of the century and applied increasingly to the once objective collections of the philosophical institutions.

What the ‘country museum’, and the museum in Scarborough lacked, was the scientific expertise necessary to curate the collections. The Rotunda’s first curator had been John Williamson, a local collector who remained in the post for more than twenty seven years. He passed on much of his collection to the new museum, but he was treated very much as an employee, and maintained on a paltry ‘salary’; for him the Museum was ‘a labour of love’. By trade Williamson was a market gardener and he had ‘enjoyed no educational advantages’ (Williamson 1896, 6). Like others in the Society ‘though not a philosopher in the higher sense he was a true worker’

Rudler (1877, 35) (F.W. Rudler, Professor of Natural Science in the University College of Wales; previously, and subsequently, Assistant Curator and Curator respectively, at the Museum of Practical Geology, London) was one of many to emphasise the vital importance of staff to the success of a natural science museum. It was essential for the museum to have a post for a professional curator with ‘an intelligent acquaintance with natural history’ which could be maintained as successive individuals come and go. ‘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, 12). W.H. Flower, Director of the Natural History Museum, London, asserted the vital importance of staff at every museum opening; to him museums lacking a paid and knowledgeable curator were ‘traps into which precious objects fall only to be destroyed’.

The role of John Phillips, in the Yorkshire Museum, is archetypal proof of this wisdom, but perhaps surprisingly it was not a view with which Phillips agreed. His experience had taught him that, in the presence of a paid keeper, the members soon showed ‘a gentle acquiescence in growing indifferent to real study, and an upspringing demand for something more amusing, exciting or fashionable’; and the keeper frustrated and overworked gave his attention to other things (Orange 1973, 40). Thus after he left the Yorkshire Museum Phillips repeatedly advised against the appointment of another paid keeper despite the benefits he had derived from the post. Similarly in 1853 he advised the Scarborough society to acquire a lowly paid caretaker who would keep the objects clean and that a ‘really scientific man’ could visit periodically. The prominent geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison, was generally in agreement with Phillips’ view. Though he had little experience of the functioning of museums, he hoped that the keeper would have sufficient knowledge to be able to point out the most remarkable fossils to strangers.

Change of fashion was not something which 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 these suggestions. They knew all too well that their success was in good measure due to Phillips who had ‘very superior scientific attainments, is modest, sensible and popular, well contented with science and £100 a year’. Inheriting an unparalleled knowledge of British geology from his travels with his uncle and guardian William Smith, he was also a gifted communicator (Phillips 1844; Edmonds 1985, 145). Pyrah (1988, 2) also believes that the relative success of geology in the nineteenth century Yorkshire Museum was entirely due to the presence of a geologist in the post of Keeper. ‘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’. Founded on the Kirkdale treasures, rooted in local geology, and associated with Phillips until his death in 1874, it would have been difficult for the Society to shrug off its geological obligations even if it wanted to.

Consistency in staffing, and therefore commitment, was vital to the survival of geology in museums – 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, 34). All subsequent incarnations of the provincial natural history museum, whether privately or publicly funded, were subject to this same law (Flower 1898, 55; Gill & Knell 1988, 12; Torrens & Taylor 1990, 197).

The rise of museum geology

The commentators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued to repeat Forbes’ concerns – neglect was widespread and particularly prevalent in geology collections. Museums were underfunded and misunderstood by their local community and government (Lankester 1897, 21). The bottom of the syncline seems to have been reached in the 1860s (Manton 1900; Scharff 1912). 

By that time the once young and inspiring philosophers had become tired and conservative. The younger generation were not enticed into the old establishment but sought new and more fashionable enterprises. Natural history societies and field clubs boomed, in part spurred on by new opportunities for travel in the 1860s and 1870s (Anon 1870a, 249; Allen 1976, 164). Some of these societies also sought to establish museums but many had learnt of the problems of too many material encumbrances. However, unlike their Philosophical predecessors they did not need to develop their own museums. Instead they might follow the lead taken by Folkestone Natural History Society which, in league with the town council, renovated and took charge of an existing ailing museum (Anon 1871, 381). Such societies continued to have an important role in the encouragement of local museums well into the twentieth century.

Whereas every philosophical society had had a museum, this was true of only 28% of scientific societies in the 1880s and some of these were survivors from the earlier generation (Galton et al 1884). Ball et al (1888, 123) found that half of existing museums had originated as society collections, and that half of these were now taken over by municipal authorities or trusts.

The current fashion for natural history included geology, and it was this which still dominated museum collections; in nearly 50% of all museums, geology remained the largest collection (figure 1) (Ball et al 1888, 114). There was quite even coverage of biology and geology (figure 2), but the relative ease of collecting and preserving geological material probably explains its dominance. The natural sciences continued as the major area of museum interest well into the next century (Green et al 1920, 269).

The natural history societies and their associated museums were seen as being of two types: those with higher scientific objectives and those rooted in formal and popular education (Gray 1865; Anon. 1870b, 469; Flower 1893, 37). Museum developments in the late nineteenth century were a reaction against the inadequacies of existing provincial museums but also against the higher scientific objectives of the earlier societies. They also reflect new opportunities. With the passing of the Reform Act of 1867 and the Education Act of 1870 audiences broadened and the buzzword for museums for the next 70 years became education (Lankester 1870; Jarman 1963, 264; Bowen 1981, 447-53). 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, lxiii).

The local museum was now to be redefined as the educational museum. This new type of museum aimed to supply a rounded education and not just a knowledge of the museum’s scientific and cultural hinterland. ‘The object of an educational museum should be to educate rather than collect. It is obvious that a museum which contained only local specimens would not teach geology’ (Hutchinson 1893, 52). Aware of the practical problems of collection building, Flower (1893, 52) 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’. Even at the Yorkshire Museum, more than any rooted in local geology, the current administration questioned the value of local collections, seeing them as useless for teaching as they contained too many gaps (Platnauer in Meek 1895).

While the educational museum might neglect its role as local archive others saw this as the provincial museum’s priority (Green et al 1920, 271). These museums were to ‘devote themselves to the thorough and complete working out of the productions of their own districts’ (Ball et al. 1888, 124). ‘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’. Only half of all provincial museums in the 1880s possessed specifically local collections (Ball et al. 1888). General collections were seen as being important in the proposed National Museum of Wales, but Rudler (1877,19) felt that these must be kept within moderate limits, only finding a place in the museum through educational merit rather than simple aesthetics or rarity.

One of the most notoriously poor museums of the period existed in Canterbury (Anon. 1871, 381). It had been established in 1847, one of the first under the Museums Act of 1845, and had taken over the collections of the local philosophical society. Adopting a weapon popular with advocators of provincial museums, George Gulliver (1871, 35) of the town’s East Kent Natural History Society launched a faintly disguised media attack on his local museum. ‘The majority of them [provincial museums] throughout England present such examples of helpless misdirection and incapacity as could not be paralleled elsewhere in Europe’. 

The Canterbury society believed they possessed the knowledge required to run a natural history museum and were supporters of Folkestone’s approach. But it was intent on pursuing an entirely different objective to that on which the collection was originally founded – now the goal was public education. ‘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’.  Thus if material in Canterbury had survived the decline of the local philosophical society, and the neglect of the town council, would it also survive the reorganisation imposed by the newly fashioned natural history society? In rescuing the useful series, 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, 36). While local collections and general educational series might survive, important material brought back from further afield might be considered useless – a narrow minded view of existing collections which has persisted in the increasingly locally focused museums of the twentieth century (Knell and Taylor 1991). Old collections might survive but each reuse brought with it a cleansing which was as destructive as it was revitalising.

R.F. Scharff (1912, 12), Keeper of Natural History, National Museum, Dublin, saw the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the development of Government’s Department of Science and Art, under Sir Henry Cole, as providing the basis for the widespread adoption of educational museums. After long debate it was through this Department that the Natural History collections of the British Museum at last found freedom and opportunity for growth in South Kensington (Flower 1889, 10). With it came a renaissance of interest in palaeontology linked to growing interest in Darwinism (Woodward 1900, 37). The Department also encouraged the formation of classes in a large number of sciences; ‘it introduced large numbers of citizens to the marvels and potentialities of science’ (Boswell 1941, xxxviii). And seemed capable of advancing those provincial museums established since the Museums Act 1845. Scharff’s (1912, 12) view was common: ‘The old popular conception of a museum as a repository for curiosities has passed away, and a new order of things has been established. Whereas not long ago museums still existed, containing nothing more than an ill-assorted mass of rubbish… but almost every museum started its early career in that manner’. However, his words express an optimism about museums that fails to recognise past lessons and which was to be undermined by the difficult decades ahead.

While the natural history societies and field clubs were slightly more egalitarian than their predecessors, the middle-classes still remained in control. Flower (1889, 14) was keen to see museums 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. Such a view was not however universal. Henry Woodward, President of the Museums Association and stalwart of the Natural History Museum for 43 years, 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, 75). This snobbery was still quite deep rooted in the Natural History Museum, and even revealed in F.A. Bather, Assistant Keeper, then Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, London, but appalled the more enlightened curators of the provinces (Manton 1900, 76).

In the early years of the Museums Association (in the 1890’s) natural scientists dominated proceedings. At its annual meetings geology was a popular subject for focused discussion and for the illustration of more general principles. What emanated from the meetings was widely adopted as good practice. An increasingly educational role for museums brought with it much discussion of the most effective methods of geological display. In the decades when geology was fashionable and fairly exclusive there was no apparent need to communicate effectively as museum displays illustrated current news items and a curator or member was always on hand to inform the visitor. Now the museum audience was changing and natural history display needed to be organised so as to meet the needs of its two visitor groups so that ‘students would be uninterrupted by the ignorant curiosity of the ruder class of general visitors’ (Gray 1865, 77). The old approach had been to provide a vocabulary: 

There are some, however, who imagine that nothing is to be learned from a museum except a catalogue of names; but this, even were the statement true, is surely an unreasonable complaint. If the volume of nature is worthy of being read, its vocabulary must deserve to be studied. No one can learn the names of these objects, without first acquiring, at the same time, some knowledge of their properties; and no one can discuss the properties without possessing some knowledge of the names.

(Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1828, 14)

Geologists seemed to be searching for the one effective and appropriate way to display collections. Consequently, exhibits were conservative and inflexible. Ball et al. (1888) showed that provincial museums almost universally adopted the same methods of display. For example, fossils, if they were organised at all, were arranged stratigraphically and then zoologically within the stratigraphic group – a method of display devised by William Smith a century earlier. Organisation was generally systematic, geographical or temporal (stratigraphic) (Rudler 1877; Boyd Dawkins 1890, 38; 1892, 22). 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. Even some of those working to break from systematic arrangement still saw it as being important in more academic museums (Bather 1924, 133). Though Bather (1896, 94) had earlier admitted that in provincial museums these were often based on outmoded classifications which more reflected the date of foundation than contemporary thinking.

John Edward Gray (1865, 76) having dedicated his life to the creation of order out of chaos in the zoology collections of the British Museum, realised at the age of 65 that his work had benefited the scientist at the expense of the public. While systematic arrangement was to stay, he called for an end to those comprehensive display series which placed similar species together only to create confusion and dismay.

In the philosophical age the geology collection provided a resource for the illustration of lectures, which were also supported by coloured maps, drawings, sections and diagrams. But these illustrative materials were little used in museum displays. J. Hutchinson (1893, 52), founder of Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, 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. In addition there remained the question of how the local collection should be used.  ‘A museum which remains entirely local misses something of high educative importance’ (Green et al. (1920, 271). To meet these educational objectives museums needed to place specimens in their wider context. ‘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). A universal rule had been adopted separating local and general collections. The latter were divided into ‘type’ or ‘typical’ series relating to the major fossil, mineral and rock groups. The approach had been developed in Richard Owen’s concept of the ‘index museum’ which he planned to incorporate into the new Natural History Museum in South Kensington (Stearn 1981, 57).

A fundamental and influential shift in thinking was taking place at the Natural History Museum at this time. Buoyed up by renewed interest in evolution in the wake of Owen’s retirement, the Museum’s scientists began to consider how the barrier which divided its research in two 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, 11). Attempts to break with tradition were made as Recent species and genera were introduced into the systematic arrangement of fossil cases. The first was when Lankester added fossil genera to Flower’s Cetacean gallery, a gallery which today, despite complete revision, continues to maintain this link between the two sides of the Museum (Woodward 1900, 42). In his important, though largely overlooked, essay, Rudler (1877, 30) also suggests the potential benefits of combining the display of Recent and fossil species. 

A more advanced approach to geology display was promoted by Bather in the 1920s. There were still some who felt ‘there was nothing duller in the world than the specimens of fossils of various kinds to be seen in the ordinary museums’ (Ridley in Bather 1924, 140). For these non-believers Bather described how the intellectual content of fossils could be unlocked to reveal the dynamics of former lives – adaptation, predation, defence, disease, death and so on. To assist those new to the subject Bather recommended contemporary science texts which might provide models for illustration in display. The newly inspired Ridley expressed concern at getting an adequate range of material, to which Bather remarked, perhaps shortly, that Ridley’s local Red Crag would provide all any museum might need; ‘the production of a series of fossils did not depend so much on the collection as on its curator’. Smith (1897, 65) earlier expressed the benefits of following the logical organisation of a textbook and one that would meet the needs of local schools. Bather (1896) in ‘How can museums best retard the advance of science?’ suggested that museums should not be given over to serried rows of specimens but to ideas, such as Darwinian evolution, ‘which make people think’.

The fall of museum geology

From the 1920s museum geology was once again beginning to slump. The reorganisation of the Science and Art Department prior to the Great War was widely blamed for thrusting the science once more into a period of general decline (Boswell 1941).

During the first half of this century, numerous writers were attempting to explain and reverse this decline (Bather 1924; North 1942; North et al 1941); forty years later another generation of museum geologists were explaining the decline in similar ways and suggesting surprisingly similar solutions (Doughty 1981; Brunton et al 1985; Knell & Taylor 1989). 

The loss of material from the 1920s onwards, much of it 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; curators were increasingly less informed about geology; and the watchdog Geological Curators Group was not to appear on the scene for fifty years. In south eastern England, Raymond Casey, a palaeontologist then working for the Institute of Geological Sciences (formerly and subsequently, the Geological Survey), witnessed this destruction. He rescued what he could and redistributed it to universities and schools. This included the whole of Tunbridge Wells Museum’s collection – which was twenty years later found intact in the Geological Museum (Gill & Knell 1987). Neglect and loss through sale, dumping, burial and theft was regrettably commonplace (Knell 1987, 7).

Unsatisfactory geology collections are more common than they should be, and they are to be found in museums where the local conditions are such that geology should be receiving special attention…But if neglect, pure and simple, has to be given as one of the reasons why museums have failed in their duty towards geology, careful preparation and scientific arrangement have not always been followed by the results that curators may have anticipated. 

(North 1942, 249)

F.J. North (1942), Keeper of Geology, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, believed that geological specimens were no longer understood. ‘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’. D.A. Allan (1941, 58), Director of the Free Public Museums, Liverpool, 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’.

Modern geologists complain of the poor media coverage the subject achieves. Boswell (1941, xxxvi) too, felt that low public interest in geology could in part be blamed on the media preoccupation with frivolous and disastrous geological stories rather than disseminating information about scientific advance. However, it would be wrong to suggest as Allan (1941, 60) did, that geological galleries of the past thrived because society was deprived of the cheap entertainments of the modern day, ignoring as it does massive social changes and cheap entertainments of the past!

While admitting that the mid-Victorian interest in field clubs demonstrated that it was ‘still possible to find close at hand numerous problems awaiting solution’. There was also a feeling amongst some geologists that there was then less to be achieved locally (Boswell 1941, xxxvi).

Despite the efforts of Bather and others, North felt that geology in museums was still failing to communicate effectively with the public. The problem was now that: geology had no obvious connection with everyday life or common knowledge; it had lost its sense of novelty and wonderment; and it appeared to have no utility. Systematic displays were still prevalent in museums; ‘they have a system but no soul; the specimens have names but are devoid of meaning’ (North 1942, 249). 

Following Bather’s approach, North set out to reawaken interest in geology through museum display. He attempted to educate curators in the hope that they would educate the masses. In ‘Why geology?’ he tried to relate geology to other areas of museum interest such as art and archaeology. North believed that geology in museums could no longer ‘rely upon a novelty that is worn out’; it needed to tell its own story and like those who preceded him he believed that the provincial museum should be teaching general principles. Local material was an appendix to this general story which should be used to give an overview of local geology. In 1928 he described the indispensability of a case introducing the science of geology to the museum visitor. North used supporting materials to illustrate and explain, much as Hutchinson and Bather had done before him. However, despite North’s undoubted eloquence, his interpretation was seen as being rather dry and technical (see Bather in North 1931, 16). North’s ideas influenced a generation of curators and his suggested improvements to local geological exhibits found their way into many British museums where they largely remained until the 1970s (North et al. 1941). Geological interpretation was sober and educational; attempts to enliven it were not always welcomed: ‘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, 60). The teaching of general principles made geology displays throughout Britain largely identical. To a more travelled modern audience this would only result in tedium.

To rise or to fall

Major periods of growth and decline have been suggested here, but these are simply national trends which have been prevalent at certain times; they in turn reflect wider changes in society (democratisation, the economy, fashion, education). These were superimposed on more local factors: dominant personalities, urban growth and prosperity, interactions between neighbouring towns, and so on. Geological interest mushroomed in those towns which had acquired sufficient size, or persons of influence, to spur activity; the concept of critical mass is useful here. But as Rudler pointed out, this interest was likely to be ephemeral. Nor should it be believed that a local growth of interest would be good for the local geological heritage. The example of Canterbury Museum suggests that each new blossoming of interest brings with it a cleansing of old collections and a further weakening of links with the ‘Heroic Age’.

The new era for museum geology in Britain dawned with the formation of the Geological Curators Group in 1974, which commissioned Phillip Doughty to report on the status of geology collections in the UK (Doughty 1981). Museums were now more professional, better funded and staffed, and more attuned to the needs of heritage conservation. As such, it is not surprising that Doughty’s findings caused widespread shock and disbelief.

Curators were already aware of disarray in their own museum and perhaps a few others but no-one had the overview. A veneer of professionalism covered the warts of a museum system incapable of carrying through its mission; in a culture built on local pride, failures were seldom discussed. But ‘the profession’, as it is now known, is a very recent invention and was predated by more than a hundred and fifty years of poorly resourced amateur (i.e. without training, method or standard) involvement. Museums were powerless to resist fashion, the economic realities of museum provision or changing notions of what a museum should be. Disarray accompanied the growth of collections.

While individual collections may have found order for a few years most have probably spent much of their time in total or partial chaos, or simply in an unmaintained state. Many of the neglected collections examined in the 1980s were wrapped in 1920s newspaper; often this was the paper in which they were wrapped when donated. It is not difficult to visualise the causes of neglect and loss, because they still exist and threaten collections – a further application of the geologist’s Principle of Uniformitarianism.

In the 1990s geology in museums is more politicised than in the past. It is more capable of protecting itself, although it can never be immune from those factors which create loss and decline. A key element in the success of geology in museums has been the provision of the specialist curator; but the museum geologist is as threatened as his or her collection. As museums staff themselves to meet current or perceived obligations there is a danger that the museum specialist may suffer further decline (Knell, 1995). There is sufficient evidence to show that where there is good provision in terms of staff, museum geology has public appeal which few disciplines can match. Geologists in the 1990s have also discovered that North was in error in believing that the ‘wonderment’ which once surrounded geology cannot be recovered. The facts revealed in the ‘Heroic Age’ caused considerable public interest. Those facts remain to be discovered by every generation – usually as children – for whom they are just as fascinating. Fortunately, modern geologists have been released from the belief that displays must ‘teach’ principles; they know more about how visitors learn in the museum but also that their most important role is to inspire. Geology exhibits are also beginning to take advantage of the technology which can enhance its potential to communicate imaginatively. At the same time, provincial museums have rediscovered local geology and thrust this to the fore; in doing so many have rediscovered their roots.

The current renaissance in museum geology is in large part due to a renewed sense of purpose. There has been little growth in provision. The ‘Catch 22’ for geology in museums is that without provision (i.e. a museum geologist) there is no demand; if there is not demand there will be no provision. There is no reason to believe that the current renaissance will be any less ephemeral that those which preceded it.


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I would like to thank the following for their help with archival materials: Linda Maggs, Yorkshire Philosophical Society; Stella Brecknell, Oxford University Museum; Ros Palmer, Scarbororough Museums; and the librarian at Scarborough Public Library. Thanks also to Hugh Torrens for telling me about the Perceval.

Figures and captions

Figure 1: Largest collections in provincial museums in Britain in 1887 (Ball et al 1888). A. General collections. B. Local collections (from a sample of 211 museums).

Figure 2: Representation of disciplines in museum collections in 1887 and 1914 based on the number of museums holding a collection in each discipline (Ball et al 1887; Green et al 1920). A. General collections 1887. B. General collections 1914 (from a sample of 134 museums). C. Local collections 1887. Note that areas cannot be summed as most museums held more than one discipline.

W.C. Williamson in a letter John Phillips dated 7 October 1868, remarking on the death of William Bean, Oxford University Museum, Phillips Archive 1868/73.

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

See W. Buckland, 1822. An account of an assemblage of fossil teeth and bones discovered in a cave at Kirkdale. Phil. Trans. R.S. Lond. 122, 171-236.

Source: Simon J. Knell. 1996. ‘The roller-coaster of museum geology’, in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Exploring Science in Museums, New Research in Museum Studies, Athlone, 29-56. ISBN 0-4859-000-68.