Nature and culture

Objects, disciplines and the Manchester Museum

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.

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