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

'Building the Book of Nature', which began in 2015, is a collaboration between Mount Allison University in Canada and the University of Birmingham funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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 architectural style, 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.

In this project we are 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, 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, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Redpath Museum in Montreal.

Project team

Project outcomes

We have presented papers on our research at conferences in the UK, Switzerland and Canada. In 2016 we undertook onsite research in Dublin and Canada; presented a panel at the Science in Public conference at the University of Kent with Stefanie Jovanovic-Kruspel from the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna; and collaborated extensively with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Visions of Nature (https://visionsofnature.net/), an arts project inspired by the museum’s architectural heritage. This year we have co-written an article based on our research for a special issue of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net; have 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 are presenting our work in progress to the EU branch of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts and the North American Victorian Studies Association. In 2018 we will be rounding the project off with public engagement and staff training sessions at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna.