This book explores the vogue for home aquaria that spread through Great Britain around the middle of the nineteenth century. The marine tank, perfected and commercialised in the early 1850s, was advertised as a marvel of modernity, a source of endless entertainment and a tool providing useful and edifying knowledge; it was meant to surprise, bringing a profoundly unfamiliar experience right to the heart of the home and providing a vista on the submarine world, at the time still largely unknown. Thanks to an interdisciplinary approach, this book offers an example of how the study of a specific object can be used to address a broad spectrum of issues: the Victorian home tank became in fact a site of intersection between scientific, technological, and cultural trends; it engaged with issues of class, gender, nationality and inter-species relations, drawing together home décor and ideals of domesticity, travel and tourism, exciting discoveries in marine biology, and emerging tensions between competing views of science; due to the close connection between tank keeping and seaside studies, it also marked an important moment in the development of a burgeoning environmental awareness. Through the analysis of a wide range of sources, including aquarium manuals, articles in the periodical press and fictional works, The Victorian aquarium unearths the historical significance of a resonant object, arguing that, for Victorians, the home tank was both a mirror and a window: it opened views on the underwater world, while reflecting the knowledge, assumptions, and preoccupations of its owners.
certain historical moments owing to a combination of
factors: the curator’s research interests, his links to metropolitan science, his
ability to effect ‘translations’ across diverse social worlds and the demands of
the state. In the late nineteenth century, the Madras Museum under Thurston evolved into a
centre of research and education in marinebiology, ocean ecology and anthropology, new
disciplines of the late nineteenth century.
Intellectual trajectory and professional networks
An Etonian, Thurston studied at King
wonders of marinebiology
Thus, the rhetoric of wonder (often, but not always, combined with religious reflections) informed most discussions about the tank. This applied to many natural-history texts of the period, but aquarium manuals used it in distinctive ways, specifically attuned to their subject. Crucially, they capitalised on the marvel generated by both the tank and the life forms it contained: in the 1850s, looking at living sea species in one’s parlour was in itself a source of amazement. Imaginative language was used to help readers appreciate the
, gender, nationality, and inter-species relations, drawing together home décor and ideals of domesticity, travel, and tourism, exciting discoveries in marinebiology, and emerging tensions between competing views of science. According to Victorian commentators, tank keeping did not just entail the capacity to focus attention but called for a wide range of sight-related abilities, such as appreciating beauty and identifying connections, but also using what one saw as a stepping stone for the imagination (stimulating visions of past, future, or alternative worlds), or as
fascination from various points of view.
A crucial area of interest was that of amateur investigations of nature. The home tank was initially advertised as a tool for the study of marinebiology, and thus participated in the expanding vogue for popular science. 3 A now well-established field of research has provided in-depth explorations of the politics of Victorian science and popularisation, most importantly by recovering the importance of participation and observational skills in a context where, as noted by Fyfe, audiences played a remarkably active role, ‘both in
(1862), which discussed marinebiology and aquaria, but also insects, snails, birds, and mammals, with a chapter entirely devoted to gorillas. Most of these texts stressed the pleasures of healthy rambles through uncontaminated environments, described landscape as a source of aesthetic pleasure and religious awe, and promoted the study of nature as a moral and moralising activity. 52 Crucially, they all argued that, although some knowledge was required to fully enjoy the chosen hobby, sufficient proficiency could be achieved by anyone with just a moderate amount of
also told various droll stories about the hazards of collecting. 39 Later he
revealed his continued adherence to his old specialism of ornithology by
publishing, in 1867, The Birds of South Africa . But he was a
polymath, collecting material relating to zoology, mineralogy,
palaeontology, archaeology and ethnography. He also developed an
interest in marinebiology, particularly mollusca. 40 Like many early curators, he
experience of visitors than with
researching collections and building up institutional and personal academic reputations. As
Nair shows, for example, Thurston spent much of his time in this pursuit, opening up new
fields of research such as marinebiology. Other museums, however, were founded with the
specific intention of educating particular communities, as in Zanzibar, or imparting certain
messages to the public, as took place in the Australian War Memorial. The museums and
exhibitions in Britain examined in this volume
-layered effect that encompassed the scientific, imaginative, and literary dimension of natural history.
The poetry of nature
The assumption behind this approach was that nature was poetic , an idea widely shared at the time. An example can be found in Charles Kingsley’s novel Two Years Ago (1857): the text features many allusions to marinebiology, a pursuit in which Kingsley was eagerly engaged in during this period. In Chapter 10, Elsley Vavasour, a conceited and self-important poet, goes to the seashore in search of inspiration, but he is not used to looking at
critique thus reveals some of the contradictions deriving from the expansion of mass tourism and popular science: the author, who contributed so much to the vogue for aquaria, is forced to admit his dismay at seeing that marinebiology has indeed become popular, but not on his terms.
Such despair was probably heightened by Gosse’s own sense of guilt: Edmund Gosse reported his father’s consternation at the unexpected side-effects of his books’ success: in Father and Son he recalls that, as a child, the coast of Devonshire and Cornwall was
like Keats’ Grecian