We are set to see plenty of new museums open this year. But have you ever wondered about museums that don’t exist any more or that have closed down? I went to a conference on Saturday all about ‘lost museums’.
It was presented by the Hunterian Museum, along with the Museums and Galleries History Group (of which I am a recent member) and hosted at the Royal College of Surgeons. There was an emphasis to start with on the history of medical museum. Although collections of specimens in jars used to be very popular, especially in the teaching of anatomy, the Human Tissue Act put an end to many of them and now only a few survive. But they are perhaps on the rise again, given the outstanding quality of displays at the Hunterian.
We also learned about Victorian anatomy shows – plaster and wax models of the body with removable organs – aimed at the general public rather than the medical profession. Again, the 1857 Obscene Publications Act put an end to those and many of the beautiful models were melted down in front of magistrates.
There were papers about Henry Wellcome‘s massive collection of objects (over 1 million when he died in 1936) which took 50 years to sort through and John Ruskin’s lost museum in Sheffield, aimed at inspiring artisans and cratsmen of the city. The museum was disbanded long agao, but has recently been recreated at www.ruskinatwalkley.org , so it’s perhaps not as lost as we think.
Two papers on natural history covered the lost menageries of animals and birds in Regency London and the history of four museums of sconomic botany at Kew Gardens, all of which have now disappeared.
Perhaps the most poignant paper was from Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, who recounted the collection of medieval art belonging to a contemporary of Soane. The architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (what a name!) collected pieces or art and architecture together in his house in Waterloo and opened it up to the public for a fee. Unlike Soane his collection disappeared when, after his death it was sold off by his family – and then the house was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the Festival of Britain.
It’s all a bit sad really – these museums which have been lost forever. But people are still writing and talking about them, so perhaps they aren’t ‘lost’ completey. Their memory lives on in some way.
I was struck by not only the physical void that the ‘loss’ of these museums created, but also the social absence that comes about when a museum closes down. If we celebrate the new Turner Contemporary as a force for good in Margate because it is set to bring about social cohesion in the town, does the closing of a museum remove something from the social fabric of a place? What happened to the visitors who no longer got to see the objects on display have social, intellectual, beautiful experiences?
Hmmmm, I can feel a conference paper of my own coming on …
In the meantime, the exhibition Lost Museums continues at the Hunterian Museum until 2 July.