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6 Posts tagged with the richard_owen_(1804-1892) tag
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One of the gems of London's history that you can still visit today (and for free), has to be amongst the trees and bushes of the small islands at the southern end of Crystal Palace Park, Sydenham, London.

 

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) was the natural history artist and sculptor, whose partnership with Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) produced the dinosaur reconstructions that you can see today in the park.

 

Hawkins was born in London and was an established artist displaying his work between 1832-1849 in prominent institutions such as the Royal Academy. His skill was demonstrated in the plates for publications such as 'Illustrations of Indian Zoology' (1830-35) and 'The Zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle' (parts 4/5, 1838-43).

 

 

 

 

 

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It was his collaboration with Richard Owen, first Director of the Natural History Museum, London and distinguished vertebrate palaeontologist, that is arguably his best known legacy. He was appointed by the Crystal Palace Company to create thirty three life sized concrete models of extinct animals and dinosaurs (funding cuts meant only around half were produced). These were to be part of a geological time zone in part of the park, which housed the relocated great glass exhibition hall.

 

Owen estimated the size and overall shape of the animals, but left Hawkins to sculpt the models, under his direct supervision. Together they produced the first public display of life sized reconstructions of prehistoric life. They are a representation of the scientific knowledge of that time, unveiled to the world in 1854, five years before Charles Darwin published 'On the origin of species'.

 

To celebrate the near completion of the project Hawkins held a dinner party for Richard Owen and twenty distinguished scientists of the time. Dinner was held in the partially finished mould of the largest sculpture, the Iguanodon.

 

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The NHM Library & Archives hold a collection of original Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins material, including watercolour and pen and ink sketches, showing his thoughts and designs for his geological creations. Also included is an invitation and menu from the unique New Years Eve party. In the Museum's scientific collections are a handful of surviving minature versions of the models that Hawkins produced prior to embarking on the final full sized ones.

 

Hawkins went on to live a life of many highs and lows, including a number of years working and lecturing in America. He returned to England in 1879 where he remained until his death in Putney on 27th January 1894.

 

Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in 1936 and the models are his unique (and slightly haunting) legacy to London and a must see for all!

 

Further reading:

 

Bramwell, Valerie (2008) All in the bones: a biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

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This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)

 

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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.

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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. 

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Amongst our collections is an invitation to a dinner party with a difference....
 
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The dinner was held by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a sculptor with an interest in Natural History. In 1852 Hawkins had been appointed to build authentic models of prehistoric animals to be displayed in the grounds of Crystal Palace. With advice from Professor Richard Owen on the anatomy of the creatures, Hawkins built life size replicas of animals such as the Pleisiosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, Megalosaurus and the Iguanodon.
 
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These models were to become influential in the popularisation of palaeontology, and in particular of dinosaurs.  Although the models are now known to be scientifically inaccurate, at the time they were the most realistic representations of dinosaurs ever produced.
 
To celebrate the forthcoming opening of the exhibition, Hawkins hosted a dinner for Owen and twenty prominent scientists of the day.  The dinner took place on New Years Eve 1853 inside the almost complete shell of the Iguanodon.  The invitation, inscribed on the wing of a Pterodactyl asks for the guest’s “Company at Dinner in the Iguanodon”.
 
The Iguanodon that served as a party venue, along with the other prehistoric animals recreated by Hawkins were officially unveiled to the public on 10 June 1854 when the park opened to 40 000 visitors. To this day they are still enjoyed by many in their original home in Crystal Palace Park.

 

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The Winter edition of Evolve is out now and is full of interesting articles.

 

In this edition there are two articles that involve the Library collections. Elin Simonsson talks about Edward Adrian Wilson and the travelling South Pole exhibition that arrives at the NHM in 2012. A number of items from the Library collections feature in this.

 

Karolyn Shindler continues her series of articles looking at the life of Richard Owen, this time his marriage to Caroline Clift.

 

Members of the Museum recieve Evolve as part of their membership. Non-members can buy copies in the NHM shop or subscribe online.

 

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Megatherium, the skeleton of the giant sloth

 

It is always a pleasure when the Library has an opportunity to bring out some of the more unusual material from it's collections. We have just had a behind the scenes visit from the NHM Members, and on this occasion our largest piece of artwork was the centre of attention.


Megatherium by the artist George Johann Scharf (1788-1860) measures 2.46m x 5.7m. It was commissioned by Professor Richard Owen (1804-1892), the renowned comparative anatomist, zoologist, palaeontologist, lecturer and first superintendent of the Natural History Museum.

 

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The giant ground sloth of South America had been known since the end of the 18th century. It existed during the Pleistocene, between 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago, and appears to have died out, not because of change in climate, but because of the actions of humans. It had long shaggy fur, foot long claws and long arms. It was huge - as big as an elephant, and was originally thought to be a quadruped. It was first described by the famous French comparative anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1796, on the basis of drawings of a mounted skeleton sent to him from Madrid. This skeleton had been brought over from the Spanish colonies in South America in 1785. After that, the remains of this gigantic sloth were avidly sought after by museums all around the world.


The Natural History Museum (then part of the British Museum) purchased Megatherium material in 1845. It had been collected from Lujan, near Buenos Aires, in Argentina in 1837. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons had Megatherium bones in their collection from the bed of the Rio Salada, south of Buenos Aires.


The watercolour held in the Library collections is likely to have been produced for purely scientific purposes rather than for display. Putting down on paper a reconstruction, using the information they had at the time, would have facilitated further debate and discussion. The image is in two tones. It is believed that the sandy colour denotes those specimens that Owen had to work with at the time, and the grey areas show those parts of the animal that were missing, with therefore assumptions being made. It was originally in one piece

 

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It was Richard Owen and Reverend Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856) who realised that it could not possibly have been a quadruped, that in fact it reared up on its massive legs, pulling down branches of trees to feed its great bulk. In 1849 plaster casts of bones from both collections were put together to form a composite skeleton. A small number of missing bones were modelled to fit: mainly ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton was mounted in the manner suggested by Owen and Buckland. The original Madrid specimen had been mounted on all fours like an elephant.


The huge cast of Megatherium is currently on display at the end of the NHM's Marine Fossil Reptiles gallery, and has been on constant display since the museum opened in 1881.

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As a result of it's enormous size and delicate nature, we do not bring out this treasured piece of artwork very often. I would encourage you to become an NHM Member and to sign up for the array of events they offer.


For more information visit the Members section on the NHM website.

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The latest edition of Evolve, the Museum's quarterly magazine, is now on sale!

 

We are very pleased to say that two of the articles have been written by regular researchers to the Library. Karolyn Shindler discusses the very public feud between Charles Darwin and Richard Owen, whilst Tracy Chevalier talks about Mary Anning.

 

Members of the Museum receive Evolve as part of their Membership. But Non-Members can buy the magazine in our Museum shops (£3.50) or subscribe online.

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