Nature's Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display

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"Museums produced natural knowledge and were themselves architectural spectacles," writes Carla Yanni. "As such, they comprise a rich cultural site suggestive of interdisciplinary historical study." In Nature's Museums, Yanni brings together the history of architecture and history of science in an engaging study of how the Victorians approached the housing and display of scientific artifacts.

Focusing on the Oxford University Museum, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, and the Natural History Museum of London, Yanni explores how such institutions reflected varying, often contradictory concepts of nature -- from the handiwork of God to a resource to be exploited. She explains how the rise of museums accompanied and influenced the transformation of science from a "gentleman's hobby" to a paying profession. And she shows how the buildings themselves remain invaluable guides to the Victorians' ambiguous perception of the natural world. Through careful social and historical accounts of the buildings, their displays, and their reception, Yanni's work deepens our understanding of the emerging power of museums in Darwin's century.

"Piled high with bones and stuffed animals, natural history museums were the primary places of interaction between natural science and its diverse publics. Studies of the natural world (what we now think of as biology and geology) were changing and conflicted disciplines, and thus no single vision of nature emerged in the Victorian period. Consequently, architects could not devise any one distinctive building type... Nature's Museums analyzes how the architecture of selected natural history museums in Britain contributed to the legitimization of knowledge." -- from Nature's Museums

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Scientists in the medieval and early-modern eras faced many obstacles to sharing their discoveries, among them the lack of organized, comparative collections of specimens. Such assemblages were almost exclusively in the hands of wealthy individuals, and scholars of more modest means had to content themselves with "cabinets of wonder," potpourris of natural curiosities whose message was often no more profound than "behold, death is near."

One of the signal developments of the Victorian era, observes art historian Carla Yanni, was the building of great museums, accessible to both scholars and the interested public, to house large collections of fossils, minerals, and other relics of the natural world. Some of these museums, such as London's Pantherion, offered astonishing and sometimes fictitious spectacles: in the Pantherion, for example, "stuffed animals were staged in frightening battles," while a great artificial swamp filled with sculptures of dinosaurs ringed the Sydenham Crystal Palace. Others, such as the incomparable Natural History Museum of London, became clearinghouses for the exchange of scientific ideas in the age of Darwin and Huxley. By the 1880s, science museums of all kinds had become popular destinations for family outings, and also the subject of considerable debate, with some scholars objecting to the supposed vulgarization of knowledge to which spectacles inevitably led.

But, Yanni notes, in their many forms, these museums also became the "primary places of interaction between natural science and its diverse publics," allowing greater participation in learning and ultimately serving science well. Heavily illustrated with period engravings and architectural renderings, Yanni's book is a useful and entertaining contribution to the history of science. --Gregory McNamee

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The development of natural history museums during Darwin's century

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