The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transmutations #7 - Monad to man: shifting natural histories in the Index Museum

Pandora Syperek's research focuses on jewel-like objects in natural history museums. But her focus today is different, and she begins her presentation with the statue of Charles Darwin house in the central staircase of the Natural History Museum in London - a triumphal rebuff to theology. But his position in this oddly religiously tinged 'cathedral of nature' was not stable - Richard Owen's statue is placed in direct opposition to him. Owen was a deeply religious man, the man who campaigned for and created the first plans for the Natural History Museum and its Index Museum.

The architectural space between these daunting statues complicates the relationship between evolutionism and religion. It was originally intended to house the Index Museum, a guide to the complexity of the natural world. The Natural History Museum was and is a complex institution, demonstrating not only science, the history of science, religion and politics, but an interest in aesthetics. Many commonplaces of the history of science - particularly as a gendered discipline - are complicated in the Index Museum.

The history of the architecture is filled with idiosyncrasies. As early as 1858, Richard Owen began his campaigns for a better site for the display of the natural collections of the British Museum. His plans were considered excessive and outlandish. The original architect died, to be replaced with Alfred Waterhouse, who would ultimately design a new building.

Waterhouse was a Quaker, and would follow the new fashion for neo-Gothic. This suited Owen, who was seen as the British Cuvier. Owen, however, was not an evolutionist, and greatly religious. It's romanesque design, extensive use of terracotta and the use of animal figures throughout all display its religiosity. Folkson's original plan had been much more influenced by the Renaissance - but for proponants of the neo-Gothic and Romanesque, this was too grounded in paganism, and had replaced the glory of the Medieval period with tired order.

Even the division of the galleries points to the natural theological background - the west wing, recent zoology, the east paleontology. The sculptures of the facade mirrored this internal arrangement - a pterodactyl opposes an eagle. This displays natural history not as gradual development, but a story of sudden historical changes - like the flood.

The original proposition for Index Museum of the Central Hall was also imbued with this ideology. The ordering of objects, from humans to single celled organisms, plants and minerals, represented a hierarchy. As well as this typology, the Central Hall was to display extraordinary animals - quite at odds with the Index Museum, it privileged the unusual over the normal. This, Syperek suggests, is related to the curiosity cabinet and its glorification of god. For Owen, the Index Museum was designed to convey as much information to the general public as possible. Not just to glorify God's creation, it was to offer a user friendly experience to the non-naturalist.

But rapidly, Owen's ideas became outdated. Keepers complained that the Index Museum would steal the best specimens, denuding the rest of the displays. The architecture and lighting of the potential space was critiqued - by the publication Nature as well as the curators. It's side chapels were difficult spaces in which to display objects. The style of the building suggests grotesquery.

The Index Museum was a microcosm not just of the natural world, but of the museum, with all its religious and political ideologies. Owen's plans and the surrounding controversy were purely theoretical, however - Owen retired only two years after the Natural History Museum was opened, and the Index Museum had yet to be build. Flower, who took over, continued with the Index Museum, however, despite being an ardent evolutionist. He changed its focus, however, treating the Index Museum as a general introduction rather than a microcosm or glorification.

But there were some stricking similarities to Owen's plans - the Man to Monad, man to single cell and mineral layout remained, and evolutionary tree. But Flowers focus was on development and collection. The displays on the central floor were very different than Owen had imagined: they pointed not to the extraordinary oddity made by God, but the peculiar developments of evolution.

There was also a move towards gritty interiors - the dissection of animals. Oddly, this was accompanied with a new focus on the value of aesthetically minded display. He wished the space to be an example of display: so Owen's fussy architecture became the housing for a new paradigm of order and deep time, combined with popular tastes and education. Display and knowledge did not compete - in the end, they would be inseperable.

I've long been interested in the reflection of curators and museum makers in buildings and displays, as well as overt practice. How far can we read intentionality into these - or can we at all? What is left unsaid in the records, and whose influences are there that we can never know?

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