Curiosity, Empire and Science in Eighteenth-Century France Class Trip

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Maggie Reilly (Zoology Curator) explains some of the taxonomic challenges faced by the Hunterian’s curators. Photo attrib. Sarah Easterby-Smith, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Blog written by Jamie Hinrichs, PhD student

On 8 March, Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith’s undergraduate module ‘Curiosity, Empire and Science in Eighteenth-Century France’ travelled to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Additional members of this expedition included a visiting lecturer from the School of Art History and a few postgraduate students – of which I was one. Although the holdings of the museum were unlikely to relate to my PhD thesis topic, and although I was lacking contextual knowledge of the eighteenth century and notions of “empire”, what historian-in-training could resist an invitation to a museum? Furthermore, what human being could resist an invitation to spend a day in a museum with Dr Easterby-Smith? I certainly could not.

The Hunterian is Scotland’s oldest public museum, founded in 1807. It was built upon the bequest of Dr William Hunter (1718 – 1783), a physician and anatomist by trade and a devoted collector at heart. His wide array of curiosities illustrates the exchange of ideas that lay at the heart of the Enlightenment era. Hunter collected with the purpose that the items would be used within an institutional environment in the future. Within his will, Hunter included provisions for the University of Glasgow to build a museum to hold his collections and stipulated that the collection would be kept together as a whole after his death.

The historic value of collections in general was put best by one of the curators:

“The history of collecting is not just about the past, but about our present.”

Visiting the Hunterian Museum reminds us that primary resources are truly a menagerie, a mix of preserved insects, herbariums, minerals, taxidermy, coins (the narrative and portraiture found in each), preserved medical specimens, military medals (and the story each one tells), shells, sketch books, paintings, journals, letters, personal book collections, and more. Collections like the Hunterian’s, are the circus-spectacular of the of the primary resource world – prepare yourself to marvel at its curiosities.

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Maggie Reilly and Anne Dulau (Art Curator) discuss the sloth specimen. Photo attrib. Sarah Easterby-Smith, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

While the collection itself is certainly impressive, what’s perhaps even more impressive is the degree of devotion and passion the collection’s curators displayed. Our group was treated to a full day of engagement with specialists who gave us mini-lectures on each part of the collection. They presented the information almost as if they were boiling over with excitement to tell someone a long-held secret.

For the history student, visiting a museum collection like this and engaging with those that work with these materials daily, illuminates history as a vibrant field of future career possibilities. The overall experience shed light on the grand array of potential employment paths that involve historical research beyond the traditional route of becoming a professor. For example: you might become a numismatic expert (with a silver pocket watch), develop an exhibition on British historic military medals (even though you studied twentieth-century, cultural European history), take charge of shifting through thousands of shells in a historic collection to discover which belonged to the original collection (thereby playing Sherlock), fascinate wide-eyed visitors by explaining just why there is a pig with two bums in a glass display case (and yes, it was born that way), and risk your life by handling a taxidermized sloth which, should you break the specimen’s skin, would leak arsenic on your hands (gives a new thought to the connotation “slothful”). Anyone who says history is dead, dull, or dreary is truly misinformed.

Articulating the fast-paced nature of working in a museum, subliminally comparing it to a journalistic lifestyle, one curator said:

“That’s museum life. You finish one project and immediately dive into the next with little time for reflection.”

The experience provided me with plenty to reflect on. If you are past due for a dose of curiosity and want a peek through different windows into the past, I highly recommend an expedition of your own to the Hunterian Museum.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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