Monday, 20 January 2014

The Afterlives of Animals: Musing on Museology. Why Did Zoology Museums Decline?

I am reading The Afterlife of Animals*, a book about iconic specimens in natural history museums. Essentially a sociological book on museology, I have difficulty coping with all the verbalised nouns that this field seems to employ and with the prolixity of some of the contributors. Nevertheless, some of the chapters are an enjoyable read and I shall return to one or two in future posts.

I could not let one statement that caused a slight twitch in the left eyebrow go without comment:

While zoological collections were a key means of studying, recording, and communicating scientific knowledge in the past, increasingly they have come to occupy a marginal position in contemporary biological research. As the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry began to undermine morphological approaches to the study of evolution in the 1950s and 1960s, “laboratories outgrew museums and herbaria as the premier places of modern science” and were therefore no longer considered as active sites of scientific research.

I suppose if one considers ‘the study of evolution’ in the narrow museum approach as taxonomy and phylogeny, then the statement is exceptionable only in terms of anachronism. In the wide sense, museums, particularly university museums, declined in importance because biology, with evolution at its core, simply moved on. Experimental Biology replaced Comparative Anatomy, slowly at first but inexorably. Molecular Biology came much much later.

Medawar described with his usual eloquence what happened to comparative anatomy:

In my time [at Oxford] the Professor of Zoology was a rather selfish little man named Edwin Goodrich. Goodrich was in spirit a member of the great generation of European comparative anatomists of the immediate post-Darwinian era—men such as Karl Gegenbaur, Ernst Haeckel, Karl Ernst von Baer, and Jan Willem van Wijhe. These were the men who demonstrated the theory of evolution—that is, who provided the evidence from comparative anatomy that soon began to make it eccentric or perverse not to accept the evolutionary hypothesis. Edwin Goodrich was in spirit one of them and to understand his career and attitude towards the science of zoology and how it should be taught, one has to have in mind that until his dying day Goodrich saw himself as a revolutionary, a torch bearer, the evangel of the new and exciting doctrine of organic evolution, and felt that the principal task of zoology was to put it upon a secure foundation…The great achievements of comparative anatomy had already passed into scientific history by the time I was a student [1932].

Dated as a major discipline comparative anatomy had become, it was firmly entrenched in university zoology departments and another set of revolutionaries set about to overturn the old order. This they did, essentially in Britain at least from the 1920s on.

Medawar describes taking over the Jodrell Chair at University College, London in 1951:

The Department also housed a museum that was crying out for demolition and I called to mind Lancelot Hogben, my predecessor in Birmingham [1941-47], who abolished the museum in his Department [Zoology] there. Indeed, the staff I inherited from Hogben had told me with awe how he had been seen staggering across the campus carrying a stuffed dugong and probably in search of an incinerator.

University museums by the 1960s were deeply unloved. They represented a remnant of a once major discipline that the experimentalists found rather embarrassing. In Britain at least another force was emerging: space. With the Robbins expansion of the universities, space in university departments was at a premium. Space wars within and between departments were common, leading on one well known occasion at least to physical violence. Attic spaces, old wooden huts and garages were all adapted for lab and office accommodation. It is not surprising that in these circumstances departmental museums were squeezed until many really became storage space for anatomical material for laboratory practicals. However, museums often carried a currency that was in short supply: one or more staff posts that had been created in the heyday of the museum and which could be filled by the department. In essence, the curator could take some of the lecturing load in a small department. So, retention of the old museum in some form meant keeping the post.

Oskars Lusis, a Latvian refugee, fulfilled such a role in Sheffield in the 1960s. Nominally the Curator of the Alfred Denny Museum, Oskars lectured, demonstrated and took part in field courses. I still remember his excellent four-week course on molluscs in summer 1963 and can never look at a garden snail without trying to remember all he told us about torsion in gastropods. Incidentally, he was the only person I have ever known who used a concave-bladed or crescent-shaped Swann-Morton scalpel (Blade No 12) as an all-purpose dissecting instrument. He kept the scalpel in the top pocket of his lab coat, bringing it forth to help a hapless student reveal with a few deft strokes the bit of the anatomy he was seeking.

Comparative anatomy did not, of course, die under the onslaught of experimental biology and other  approaches that emerged under its cover nor under the later onslaught of ‘molecular’ biology but it ceased completely to exert its stranglehold on zoology. It still continues to yield very important discoveries to add to the triumphs of the past. 

More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the departmental museums that have survived. They show how teaching and research in zoology has evolved over the last century and a half while still holding the specimens used for practical classes. Those open to the public are popular attractions, often showing more effectively what real museums were like than the large collections which have gone for trendy exhibits and educational overkill. Even the museum that Medawar wanted to demolish has been resurrected on a different site. Walking down Gower Street last year, we saw that the Grant Museum of Zoology, the UCL collection, is open to the public.

I wonder if Birmigham misses its dugong?

* Alberti, Samuel J.M.M. (ed) 2011. The Afterlives of Animals. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press.
Patchett, M., Foster, K., Lorimer, H. 2011. The biogeographies of a hollow-eyed harrier. In Alberti op cit.
Medawar, P.B. 1986. Memoir of a Thinking Radish. Oxford: Oxford University Press.