Nature, Science, and Industrialisation

While at the ‘New Ways’ workshop (see previous Blog) I discussed the use of historical characters as a way of developing engaging themes within smaller local natural science collections with Susan Liddell — of Lancashire Museum service, and one of my main points of contact for Rossendale Museum — Susan mentioned that there was a character in an Elizabeth Gaskell novel who, while being a mill worker by day, was a keen amateur naturalist in his spare time. Of course the emergence and dominance of the wool and cotton mills in both Rossendale and Blackburn represent huge influences on these towns and their residents. Blackburn’s motto ‘By Skill and Hard Work’ seems to encapsulate this well. But of course industrialisation came at a price and one way to contextualize the natural science collections at Rossendale and Blackburn is to understand them as part of a romanticism of nature — one created through the smoke dusted spectacles of the industrial townships.

This tension, between the progress of industrialisation and the perceived loss of our former relationship with nature, was an interest of the artist J.M.W. Turner and is perhaps especially apparent in the watercolours he made as he travelled around the growing townships of the manufacturing districts. Advancements in printing and publishing brought the works of Turner to ever larger audiences but also saw in a huge rise in the popularity of literature. Authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte’s and George Eliot (among others) played a large part in developing romantic or nostalgic sensibilities towards nature within the growing populations of the townships. Excursions to the seaside, forays across the moors, and burgeoning natural science clubs were a part of regaining what seemed for many a lost paradise, as much as anything else.

Of course, the material manifestations of such preoccupations were collections of ferns, sea shells, herbaria, birds’ eggs, and beetles — all easily collected, easily preserved, portable, and necessitating long walks in the countryside or seaside. Bringing them back into the home brought nature back into your life. In a way, this advances the argument that collections at Rossendale and Blackburn were culturally and socially determined, and a response to local and personal circumstances. However, this should not exclude the scientific determinants. The popularity of ornithology, of collecting birds’ eggs, beetles, shells, herbaria, seaweeds, etc, may have been rooted in local and personal preoccupations with nature but were largely organised and legitimized by a rapidly developing scientific enterprise. The scientific mind was perhaps as culturally concrete and important as the romanticism of nature was to the philosophy of the occupants of the industrial townships. It was a taxonomic rationale that organised the collecting mind, informing and fuelling further acquisitions and propagating a strong trading culture between collectors.

So while the collections at Rossendale and Blackburn can say a great deal about the natural world they also represent personal, local, and cultural, preoccupations which in turn can say a great deal about life in these towns for their occupants.

Mark Steadman


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