At the turn of the nineteenth century, museums in Europe and North America were at their largest and most powerful. New buildings were bigger; objects flooded into them, and more people visited them than ever before. The Manchester Museum is an ideal candidate for understanding cultures of display in twentieth-century Britain. It is a treasure trove of some four million priceless objects that are irreplaceable and unique. Like many large European collections, the origins of the Manchester Museum are to be found in a private cabinet: that of John Leigh Philips. This book traces the fate of his cabinet from his death in 1814. The establishment of the Manchester Natural History Society (MNHS) allowed naturalists to carve out a space in Manchester's cultural landscape. The Manchester Museum's development was profoundly affected by the history of the University in which it operated. In January 1868, the Natural History Society formally dissolved, and an interim commission took control of its collections; the Manchester Geological Society transferred its collections the following year. The new collection was to be purely scientific, comprising geology, zoology and botany, with no place for some of the more exotic specimens of the Society. The objects in the collection became part of Manchester's civic identity, bringing with them traces of science, empire and the exotic. Other museological changes were afoot in the 1990s. Natural history collections became key sites for public engagement with environmental issues and biodiversity and more recently as sites for exhibiting art.
The Manchester Museum was based on the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society (MNHS). This chapter focuses on the networks that propelled specimens to the Museum, the politics of acquisition and the meanings of objects. For three decades from the mid-1890s, the Manchester Museum was at the quantitative peak of growth by donation, which reflected natural history museum acquisition in Europe and North America generally. The cultural economy of donation encompassed both nature and culture. The geographical and administrative peak of the British Empire was in the early twentieth century, which was reflected in the quantity and provenances of objects in British collections. The foundation stones of the Manchester Museum were laid as Gladstone's government hurled the nation into the 'scramble for Africa'. Many historical studies accordingly focus on the early colonial activity, and much of the literature is concerned with the nineteenth century.
Technique and the lives of objects in the collection
Samuel J.M.M. Alberti
Institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom had been considering digital recoding of collections data for over a decade when the 'Computer Cataloguing Unit' became operational. After reflecting on the nature of cataloguing, the chapter explores the different textual encounters from registration to publication, and concentrates on the Museum's early history and the system set out by William Evans Hoyle. The chapter charts the fate of specimens and artefacts within the collection. By studying what happened to objects in collections, the chapter contributes to a constructivist history of science, embedding the study of scientific practice in material culture. The chapter addresses what naturalists, archaeologists, curators and technicians actually did on a day-to-day basis. It is devoted to the storage techniques, and to tools and staff involved in exhibiting the select few items deemed suitable for display.
The history of the Manchester Museum is fundamentally a history of people, and how they relate to objects. This chapter draws from the established bodies of work in cultural theory, mass communication studies and book history that view the communication process from both sides. In museum studies, visitor theory and contemporary surveys are replacing the passive audience with active participants in the construction of meaning, but seldom has the historical visitor been awarded the same courtesy. Text, arrangement and building worked together to condition the museum experience. From the First World War, the educational department of the Museum had an almost exclusive focus on primary schoolchildren. In Manchester, school buildings were required as military hospitals, so the town implemented a 'two-shift' system whereby classes from around twenty schools spent half the day outside school buildings.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book suggests the parallels between the emphasis on evolutionary zoology in the Manchester Museum and the development of neo-Darwinism in biology. Throughout their 'lives', museum objects were attributed varied meanings and values as collectors, curators and audiences encountered them in very different ways. Objects did not act in their own right, but rather material culture was acted upon and was a conduit for human intention. In tracing the meanings and processes the principal intention of the book is to understand the construction and development of disciplines and the boundaries between them. The political history of UK museums in the twentieth century promises to be fascinating. A twentieth-century history would provide a sorely-needed historical context for the post-colonial turn in museology, filling the gap between imperial sources and contemporary approaches.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book reflects the central theme, how nature and culture are constructed, reinforced and differentiated with objects in museums. It looks at the history of the Manchester Museum through disciplinary construction and development. The book draws on the work of sociologists, anthropologists and historians of science who have studied the social lives of things. It explores the place of different collections in the administrative and spatial layout of the museum. The book is devoted to the story of the Society and its collections, the Victorian prologue to the main feature. It traces the development of the collection from a private cabinet to its grand neo-Grecian premises in the centre of industrialising Manchester. The book maps out the gradual unravelling of William Boyd Dawkins's continuous sequence within the Museum.
The collecting networks established by the Manchester Natural History Society (MNHS) in the nineteenth century provided a framework for acquisition in the twentieth. On 29 January 1868, the Natural History Society formally dissolved, and the commission took control of its collections; the Manchester Geological Society would transfer its collections the following year. Like many large European collections, the origins of the Manchester Museum are to be found in a private cabinet: that of John Leigh Philips. The Peter Street Museum was a grand affair, replete with a pillared façade. It was part of the Greek architectural revival in Manchester, echoing the original town hall on King Street. Continuing on the trajectory William Crawford Williamson had started at Peter Street, Thomas Brown and his successor Thomas Alcock sought to establish the curators' role similar to expert naturalist than glorified janitor, and additional staff were appointed to assist them.
The chapter presents three narratives: the cultural cartography within the Museum; the relationship between the Museum and the rest of the University; and the status of the Museum profession. In presenting a unified view of nature linked by time and evolution, William Boyd Dawkins wanted to smooth over disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences. Even the scientific areas that fulfilled the new 'green' environmental Zeitgeist privileged fieldwork rather than collection-based research. The chapter examines the shifting disciplinary boundaries within the natural history collections and between the Museum, the university, and the wider intellectual sphere. Material culture was employed in the physical space of the Museum to build disciplines and anchor communities of practice, whether academic, amateur or professional. New accommodation for the Museum was relegated to 'the University's plans for the future', and the natural history collections were dislocated from their cognate teaching departments.
This chapter presents a study of relationships between objects and people, and explores the construction of nature and culture in museums. The material culture upon which the disciplines were based could be arranged in an uninterrupted sequence of development that encompassed both nature and culture; the geological eras segued into prehistoric, historic and, finally, contemporary 'savage' cultures. William Boyd Dawkins shaped the collection at the inception of the Manchester Museum through his interest in cave deposits and particularly flints. The prehistorians approached archaeology as a taxonomic and chronological enterprise, using stratigraphical techniques to date and classify artefacts in evolutionary sequences. Roderick Urwick Sayce clarified the disciplinary divisions in the archaeological collections, as prehistoric archaeology was organised and staffed alongside ethnology. The professional identity of archaeological curators was consolidated by the formation of the Society of Museum Archaeologists in 1975, one of a series of specific bodies within the museum profession.