This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)
On the opening of the Natural History Museum in 1881 the Central Hall was reserved for species type characters of the principal subject areas of the museum with the purpose of, as Richard Owen put it, ‘forming an Epitome of Natural History’.
The concept of a type museum, or Index Museum as it came to be known, had been with Owen, the Natural History Museum Superintendent, for many years. He had attempted in his previous post as curator of the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum to bring this to fruition – buying many non-surgical specimens for display, including a wide variety of mammals, and trying for a time in the 1840s to canvass the powers that be to remove the zoological specimens from the British Museum to his own Hunterian. His central display there contained as many fossil mammals as it did surgical specimens, moving the focus of the museum and its exhibits from a practical medical one to a more general study of comparative anatomy.
On moving over to what was then the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, Owen focused on this perceived need for this Index Museum from the very outset – his first report to the Trustees in 1859 to propose a Natural History Museum separate from the Bloomsbury museum contained a circular hall in the centre, for the exhibition of type specimens. ‘Such a building, besides giving accommodation to the several classes of natural history objects…should include a hall for a distinct department, adapted to convey an elementary knowledge of all divisions of natural history, the large proportion of public visitors not being specially conversant with any particular subject’. His design by 1879 showed the Central Hall much as it is today with its series of bays, but with each bay devoted to a different subject area (mollusca, botany, minerals, fish etc.)
This period of development was at the peak of the age of the museums – a period of about 50 years when the majority of national and provincial museums were established. Owen himself, although a key player in this, was in many ways quite old fashioned in his approach. His emphasis on this Index Museum, at least in part, stemmed from this. His vision of a museum was a somewhat dated one: he desired that his new Natural History Museum would follow the old model where every specimen was on display and the whole museum was an exhibit, and therefore a key reference area would be needed to orient visitors and summarise the complex and voluminous array of collections on display. His originals plans showed a huge 10 acre museum (only 5 acres of land were finally purchased). Other members of staff followed the lead of some of the more modern institutions, and believed that only a select sample of material should be on display, the rest kept in a reference section only available to researchers. With this arrangement, there would be no need of Owen’s desired Index Museum.
The Keepers of the various scientific departments wrote reports to the Trustees in 1880 arguing in favour of this segregation of research and display, and against the setting up of a separate Index Museum. Their other key arguments were that more funds for a central display might mean less money for scientific research and display in the individual departments, and that Owen would take all the prime exhibits from the departments for his own exhibits. Owen in turn wrote to the Trustees attacking these arguments and the scheme went ahead, largely by force of the old man’s will alone.
When the Natural History Museum, after a gestation period of over 20 years, was finally opened in 1881, Owen was 77 years old. He had drawn up extensive plans for the museum generally, and in great detail for the Central Hall, having gone as far as coming up with a list of specimens and writing a guidebook for the proposed displays. However he was no longer in a position to carry through many of his grand plans, and stayed on as Superintendent only until 1883 when the move of the last of the mammal specimens to South Kensington was completed. He was replaced in his position by William Flower who had, like Owen, previously been the curator of the Hunterian Museum. As such, Flower had considerable experience of curating and managing zoological exhibits. He was given the new title of Museum Director.
The role of Director at this point though was very limited. Each Keeper had full control, not just of the scientists in their respective departments, but also over the structure and contents of all displays. The only area which the Director had effective sway over was the central Index Museum, and Flower made the most of this opportunity. The Trustees had wanted to give up on the type museum idea after Owen’s retirement, but Flower ensured that this did not happen. He was in many ways much more forward-looking in museum layout and exhibition design than his predecessor.
He was really one of the first to address the need for distinctly separate exhibition and study collections, the need to severely limit the amount of material on display for ease of understanding of the general public and the need to, as he put it, use specimens to illustrate labels, rather than labels illustrating (often rows and rows of only marginally different) specimens. He stated that ‘The Curator’s business will be quite as much to keep useless specimens out of the museum as to acquire those that are useful’.
So William Flower was left to select and install the specimens following Owen’s grand Index Museum design. Under his tutelage however, it changed from an index to the main collections in the Museum, into something more like an introduction to the concepts and principles of natural history, covering topics like evolution, albinism, natural disasters, seasonal colour adaptation, flight and domestication of animals. There was also a series of temporary exhibitions related to specific anniversaries or events, on topics such as animals in the bible and Darwinism. Flower was able to persuade the Treasury to supply funding for scientifically trained assistants who were not on the scientific staff of the Museum to work on the Central Hall collections – the first time staff were employed at the Museum purely for the managing and arrangement of exhibitions, rather than research work.
The Index Museum continued to grow and develop in the decades after William Flower, although it had faded out by the end of the Second World War. After this point the bays of Central Hall contained a series of temporary exhibits, along with some specimens which were retained by popular request, while the centre held a series of large displays – originally a sperm whale, then a number of different elephant displays, and finally from 1979 onwards the Diplodocus which is still there today.