Building the Book of Nature: The Poetics of the Natural History Museum

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, natural history museums were built across Europe and North America to display collections of bones, fossils, taxidermy and minerals.

Some were national museums on a grand scale. Others aimed to assert the importance of particular cities or regions within science. Still others displayed the teaching collections of universities. This period saw intense debates around architecture, with the Gothic revival pitted against neo-classicism, controversies over the use of iron and glass in building, and the emergence of new eclectic architectural styles. The contemporary debates within geology and biology were still more fraught. In their architecture, the natural history museums reveal not only their architectural loyalties but where they stood on the most urgent scientific questions of the day: whether science should be strictly materialist or a form of natural theology, whether life had been created or evolved, and what the place of human beings was in nature.

Line drawing of a museum building

Building the Book of Nature, which began in 2015, is a collaboration between Janine Rogers at Mount Allison University in Canada and John Holmes at the University of Birmingham funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In this project we have been looking at the natural history museums built in England, Ireland and Canada from the 1850s to the early twentieth century, to see how the theories and values of the scientists who commissioned and ran them are expressed in the fabric of their buildings. Our case studies are the Natural History Museum in London, the Oxford University Museum and the Manchester Museum; the National Museum of Ireland and the museums of Trinity College Dublin; and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Redpath Museum in Montreal. In addition to publishing our research (see Publications), we have presented it at conferences and through public lectures in the UK, Switzerland, Austria, Canada and Germany; pioneered a new double-panel presentation digitally linked across the British Society for Literature and Science conference in the UK and the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English in Canada, with respondents from the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Royal Ontario Museum; and provided workshops for staff at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Canadian Museum of Nature on how the architecture of these museums relates to their collections and public engagement.

Image: Oxford University Museum of Natural History illustrated in The Builder, 7 July 1855