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The History of the Collections contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum

Nature volume 71, page 485 (23 March 1905) | Download Citation



EVERY museum of the first rank has two histories, one of which is usually written but rarely published—the history of the gradual accumulation of the museum material, by purchase, exchange, or donation, and another, which can hardly ever be written—the history of the internal metabolism, the arrangement and re-arrangement, the differentiation and integration, the “Kampf der Theile im Organismus.” It may not be difficult to indicate how various museums have adapted themselves to the advance of science and to their growing constituency under the influence of effective directors, how nature has crept in between the teeth of the abstractive scientific fork, how evolutionary series have replaced static taxonomic displays, how problems of practical human interest have been recognised, how a mere chamber of horrors has become an introduction to a rational study of pathological variation, and so on; but who can ever tell the detailed physiological story of the metamorphoses? For the great museum is an organism of many parts, each with its spiritus rector, each developing independently, and yet in cooperation with the rest. It may not be difficult to show how a museum has changed or is changing as the various objectives— for instruction, for investigation, for inspiration— have become more clear to the organisers; when, for instance, the simple step is taken of discriminating between what can be usefully exhibited and what should be as usefully concealed; but who can ever tell how much even this simple step costs? Is the priceless connecting link to be shown with blinds up or with blinds down, or not at all? But we must not intrude further into the real history of a great museum; it is an intricate story of thrust and parry between keepers and their environment, both animate and inanimate. The history before us is a history, not of the British Museum (Natural History Departments) as a growing organism; it is the history of the collections—a story of accretion.

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