The Appliance of Science - The Georgian British Museum

A cabinet of curiosities or a medium for enlightening the general public? Patricia Fara looks at how debate over democratising scientific knowledge crystalised in the development of the newly-formed British Museum.

Matthew Bramble's recommendations for improving the 'noble collection' he visited at the British Museum in 1770 seem rather strange to modern readers. He suggested filling the gaps in its natural history exhibits, buying apparatus to perform experiments, and employing a professor to teach mathematics, mechanics and natural philosophy. 'But', he continued in a testy complaint which still has a ring to it two centuries later, 'this is all idle speculation, which will never be reduced to practice. Considering the temper of the times, it is a wonder to see any institution whatsoever established for the benefit of the public'.

Bramble was, of course, only the fictional mouthpiece of the novelist Tobias Smollett, but the comments of real-life tourists confirm that the Museum, first opened in 1759, was very different then from how it is today. Nowadays, people from any background expect to be free to browse at their leisure amongst glass cases displaying carefully labelled antiquities and objects of art. In contrast, during the eighteenth century, only those 'studious and curious persons' who persevered to the top of the long waiting list were even considered for entrance tickets; if approved, they joined a small group to be rapidly swept around rooms as crammed with natural curiosities as with artefacts of human origin. One dissatisfied visitor described how ... ...

…a German ciceroni took charge of us, and led us au pas de charge through a number of rooms full of stuffed birds and animals; – many of them seemingly in a state of decay. We had a glimpse of arms, dresses, and ornaments of savages hung around; – of a collection of minerals ... We had no time allowed to examine any thing; our conductor pushed on without minding questions, or unable to answer them, but treating the company with double entendres and witticisms on various subjects of natural history.

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