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Museums and Their Functions: Lecture 02. Brief History of Natural History Museums (Part I). Introduction.

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museums and their functions lecture 02

Museums and Their Functions: Lecture 02

Brief History of Natural History Museums (Part I)

  • One role of museums: assembling objects and maintaining them within a specific intellectual environment (world view). This statement is pertinent in tracing the history of museums because world views change over time.

A world view is an implicit (rational) manner by which a society perceives its surroundings and functions within its surroundings.

Museum development is divided into six phases corresponding to shifts in world view.

historical periods
Historical Periods
  • Six periods of natural history museum development according to Whitehead (1990).
    • Greco-Roman Period (to 400 A.D.).
    • Pre-Renaissance Period (400-1400).
    • Renaissance Period (1400-1600).
    • Pre-Linnaean Period (1600-1750).
    • Linnaean Period (1750-1850).
    • Modern Period (1850-present).
world view periods
World View Periods
  • According to Hooper-Greenhill (1992) there were three distinct periods of museum development:
  • Renaissance Episteme 1400-1600.
  • Classical Episteme 1600-1750 = Pre-Linnaean Period.
  • Modern Episteme 1750-present = Linnaean + Modern periods.

Episteme is a world view.

greco roman period to 400 a d
Greco-Roman Period (to 400 A.D.)
  • 290 BC Ptolemy II Philadelphus established center of learning dedicated to the muses (poetry, history, music, drama, dance, and astronomy) in Alexandria.
  • Museum personnel included: director, scholars, students, all supported by the state.
  • First establishment for promotion of literature and science. Research and teaching were primary goals.
  • Library and museum were destroyed during civil unrest between 270 and 275 AD.
pre renaissance period 400 1400
Pre-Renaissance Period (400-1400)
  • In the Thirteenth Century there was a revival of learning with translation of Greek writing into Latin.
  • Period with veneration for rare, unusual, wonderful, and miraculous.
  • Knowledge based on previous knowledge rather than observations.
  • There was no a real concept of temporal change. Past was seen in terms of the present.
renaissance period 1400 1600
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
  • Medici palace, first museum of Europe.
  • World view concerned with life in the present rather than contemplative ideal of earlier times.
  • Secular values (power and influence) developed a new cultural field.
  • Classical past was revered, classical artifacts and reproductions displayed, importance of temporal change realized.
  • Knowledge consisted of discovering hidden similarities through correspondences (legends, hearsay and material offered clues to discovering likeness and relationships).
palazzo medici florence c 1440 first european museum

Palazzo Medici, Florence c. 1440 (first European museum).

Palazzo Medici, Florence c. 1440 (first European museum). It contained treasures of precious metals and stones, and classical artifacts and reproduction of classical artifacts (sculpture, manuscripts, and coins). (From Hooper-Greenhill, 1992).

renaissance period 1400 16001
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
  • By end of 16th century private museums common in Europe. First were cabinets of curiosity later as cabinets of the world.
  • Cabinets of the world (Kunstkammers) attempted to create models of nature.
  • Cabinets included objects of magical powers, fossils, precious stones, classical artifacts and reproductions. (Little discrimination between original and reproductions.)
  • Ordering and relationships of objects provided the message but message may be partially hidden.
kunstkammer of frans franken the younger early 17 th century

Kunstkammer of Frans Franken the Younger (early 17th century). Paintings, figurines, shells, dried fishes, and other natural and human productions were brought together to represent the world. (From Hooper-Greenhill, 1992).

Kunstkammer of Frans Franken the Younger (early 17th century).

antiquarium of wittelsbach munich 1568

Antiquarium of Wittelsbach, Munich, 1568. Sculpture arranged in scheme of allegory and symbol. Typical of displays to support social status. (From Hooper-Greenhill, 1992).

Antiquarium of Wittelsbach, Munich, 1568.
renaissance period 1400 16002
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
  • Cabinets used interpretation, esoteric knowledge, memory techniques (places and images) to provide two or three dimensional models of the world.
  • In part contents of cabinets determined by medicinal value; and men trained in medicine studied zoology and botany.
  • Early naturalists: Pierre Belon (1517-64), Guillaume Rondelet (1507-66), Hippolyto Salviani (1514-72), Conrad Gesner ((1516-65), and Ulyssis Aldrovandi (1522-1605).

Memory techniques are a form of language constructed of images and spaces to expressideas.

renaissance period 1400 16003
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
  • Conrad Gesner’s Histoia animalium. 4 vols. 1551-1558.
  • Included synonymy of each species, geographical variation, life history, fables, folklore, adages, proverbs, and emblems.
  • The fables, folklore, adages, and proverbs summarize what the animal symbolize in human culture.
  • Emblems consist of an image, preferably obscure motto, and an explanatory epigrammatic poem.
  • Purpose of an emblem was to convey a clever truth, and emblems were very popular during the 16th century.
woodcut of a fox
Woodcut of a fox.



A. Woodcut of a fox. From Gesner’s Historia Animalium (1551). B. Woodcut of fox emblem. From Alciati’s Emblematum libellus (1534). [Translation: What a fine head this is but it has no brain.] From Ashworth 1996.

emblem of a fox and badger
Emblem of a fox and badger.

Emblem of a fox and badger. From Camerarius (1595). [Translation: What you want another has.] From Ashworth 1996.

renaissance period 1400 16004
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
  • Aldrovandi published a 13 volume encyclopedia of natural history.
  • Had fine illustrations, including anatomical drawings.
  • Descriptions were based to a large extent on observations.
  • Fables, epithets, proverbs, allegories, emblems, and symbolic images were also included.

Epithets are adjectives, nouns, or phrases used to characterize a person or thing.

aldrovandi dragon of 1572
Aldrovandi. Dragon of 1572.

Aldrovandi. Dragon of 1572.

pre linnaean period 1600 1750
Pre-Linnaean Period (1600-1750)
  • Age of Discovery (early 15th and 16th centuries) brought end to Renaissance episteme.
  • Discrimination rather than similitude became basis for knowledge.
  • World became known by objective analysis rather than by subjective experience.
  • 17th century: proliferation of collections, botanical gardens, and menageries.
pre linnaean period 1600 17501
Pre-Linnaean Period (1600-1750)
  • Museums develop from mere catalogs of nature to natural classifications, and museums tended to be specialized.
  • There was a great mobility of museums and museums were used for teaching.
  • John Ray (1629-1705) and Francis Willoughby (1635-1672) were the first modern naturalists to develop natural catalogs.
museum of olaus worm leiden 1655
Museum of Olaus Worm, Leiden, 1655

(Museum of Olaus Worm, Leiden, 1655). From Whitaker 1996.

museum of ferrante imperato
Museum of Ferrante Imperato

Museum of Ferrante Imperato (Venice, 1672).

museum of ferdinando cespi bologna 1677
Museum of Ferdinando Cespi, (Bologna, 1677).

Museum of Ferdinando Cespi, (Bologna, 1677). Cespi stressed the sensational.

roman college museum
Roman College Museum

Roman College Museum, (Rome 1678). Under Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) study of languages was joined with the study of natural history.

references and credits
References and Credits

Ashworth,W.B., Jr. 1996. Emblematic natural history of the Renaissance. pp. 17-37. In: Cultures of Natural History (eds.) N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E/C/ Spary. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. 1992. Museums and the shaping of knowledge. Routledge, New York.

Whitehead, P.J.P. 1970. Museums in the history of zoology. Mus. J.

Whitaker, K. 1996. The culture of curiosity. pp. 75-90. In: Cultures of Natural History (eds.) N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E/C/ Spary. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.