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McCormack, Helen (2015)
Languages: English
Types: Unknown
In his book, Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, The British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution, John Cascoigne remarks that the gentleman naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks represented a ‘splendid anachronism’, explaining how Banks and his collection of natural history and antiquities, gathered in his museum in London’s Soho Square, epitomized a ‘planned obsolescence’ allowing naturalists to become professionals and diminishing his own status within the networks of late eighteenth-century scientific communities. Similarly, in his eulogy to Dr. William Hunter, the French physician, Félix Vicq d’Azyr, describes how his museum at 16 Great Windmill Street in Westminster, formed a ‘superb cabinet’, one ‘where his mind would recapture a picture of all his ideas’. On Hunter’s death, however, the meanings of the collection changed: ‘the chain of all these truths is broken; all is silent in this vast structure’ (Vicq d’Azyr, 1805). Without the guiding hand of the collector early scientific interiors and collections quickly became less comprehensible, often broken up and sold among other collectors, or, like William Hunter’s, became the foundation for the type of public museum that we might recognize today. Early scientific collections encompassed such a broad range of material objects, both natural and artificial, that the collector was intrinsic to the purpose of the collection overall and to the knowledge embodied in each individual object. Collectors such as Banks and Hunter were intimately connected to the very materiality that constituted their extensive collections, an interdependence that is made more significant when the material is formed of human and animal anatomy, the very fabrica of life. This paper explores this relationship between collector and the collection and accounts for the entanglements of meanings that have direct consequences for the ways that we interpret the material culture of museum collections today.

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