Facing backwards: A history of museums’ back of house

This image shows Pete Smith, former curator at Blackburn Museum, arranging the display of seabirds in the Wildlife of the Coast Diorama, 1965. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.

These images of past curators and technicians from Blackburn Museums reveal an often forgotten human dimension to natural science collections. We often foreground the role of the collector or perhaps the patron behind an acquisition, sometimes even the rationale or motive behind the formation of a collection but rarely do we integrate into our accounts the endeavours of the museum staff who worked on the collections once they arrived at the museum.

An unknown technician takes in the finished display, 1965. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.

The contribution made back of house by curators, conservators, taxidermists, technicians and the like, was just as formative to the trajectory of a collection as any of the forces more commonly studied. Images such as these remind us that the history of an object or collection doesn’t stop when it reaches the museum doors but continues. Sam’s recent publication Nature and Culture as well as the forthcoming The Afterlives of Animals breaks new ground by making use of such material. When looking at late nineteenth century collections, the time an object has spent in a museum often represents the longest part of its life history and warrants greater attention than current scholarship tends to afford it. Representing a wealth of important knowledge, one aim of NLOB’s is to interview retired museum staff, many of whom worked as assistants to yet older generations of museum staff.

Cyril Pugh, Blackburn Museum technician. Photographed here working on a display case in Lord Street during Christmas 1967. Caught here inside the display window, with a fag on, Cyril has become the museum’s temporary exhibit. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.

Mark Steadman



Filed under Museums

20 responses to “Facing backwards: A history of museums’ back of house

  1. Too true.

    Here at the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL it is our last day open until we move. Because half of the displays are empty already http://twitpic.com/217coy we’ve printed out lots of historical photos of work in the museum and mounted them in cases. Entire generations of museum staff are missing and others only occur in photographs as a bright eyed student and then at their retirement party!

    Not only are these photos important for object histories but for the ethnography of curators. However, although we appreciate this about historical images we often don’t take time to record our own activities through images or videos.

    Great post

    • “Not only are these photos important for object histories but for the ethnography of curators. However, although we appreciate this about historical images we often don’t take time to record our own activities through images or videos.”

      Something worth debating here. In what ways can the curatorial process be documented, etc? Would this be sidetracking from the key focus of this research process (not that this is a bad thing)? How can we debate this in a way that enriches the outcomes of the research process?

  2. David Craven

    Once you know your ex-curators, it’s amazing where they pop up.

    I’ve been doing some research (in my free time) into a Unitarian minister who was pro-evolution, anti-Darwin. While ploughing through archives at John Rylands Library, I found advertisements for the Bank Street Chapel “Congregational Soiree” of 1878. There, listed to address the crowd, was Bolton’s first curator, WW Midgley.

    Even better, and one for Sam really, in 1889 the chapel held a “Bachelors Party” in the Bank Street Reading Room. Among the entertainment, alongside Prof. Yamtuskia’s Sleight of Hand, and the Blue Hungi ‘Uns Band, was a performing white elephant!
    I’m assuming, given the size of an elephant, and the size of the average church reading room, this was not an indoor event.

    • Patricia Francis

      William Midgley would not become Bolton’s curator until 1883 and as far as is known his image exists in only one photograph. However he and his son, Thomas, who took over as curator on his father’s retirement, both became Unitarian sunday school teachers. There are no known images of Thomas in Bolton’s archive.
      The elephant sounds great fun & how appropriate for Bolton as an elephant appears on the old town crest!

      • David Craven

        I had wondered whether William could have been involved in raising funds for the museum? Maybe in 1878 his address at the soiree was on the need for a museum, and this inspired Chadwick and some other local bigwigs?

        Wild speculation of course, it’s far more likely he was just giving a reading from scripture. But it’s fun to imagine the event having more meaning.

      • Mark Steadman

        Patricia, lovely to have seen you at the workshop the other day and many thanks for your invaluable input. I have a question for you. I’m looking for examples of books from the late late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that popularised botany, especially to women. They need not be books alone, but could include periodicals and magazines. I have some titles already but wondered if you had any whose influence and distribution you consider makes them seminal or classic.

  3. Hi Mark,
    Talking to the owner of the chippy in Rawtenstall might help – he knew the former caretaker at the RM very well, with plenty of childhood memories playing with the artifacts up in the attic.

  4. PS. It’s often the same in the arts world, that the process of selection and curatorial project development is often as revealing as the final exhibited, or performed, outcome. What is considered ‘sensational’, ‘attractive’, ‘important’, ‘valuable’, etc, and how is this filtered out/in.

  5. sjmma

    Louis Compton Miall, who will be familiar to Mark and the other Leedsians, was also a Congregationalist, and also closely associated with an elephant.

    As all the best people are.

  6. Patricia Francis

    Hi Mark
    Thanks for your question on publications which popularised botany.

    There’s a really good article on this topic: Bentham for “beginner and amateurs” and ladies: Handbook of the British flora by A.B. Shteir, in Archives of Natural History 30 (2): 237-249 (2003). Shteir mentions the following publications:
    Ladies Botany (1834-7) John Lindley
    Botany for Ladies (1842) Jane Loudon re-titled Modern Botany when re-issued in 1851
    Popular Field Botany (1848) Agnes Catlow
    The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Great Britain [1855] Anne Pratt
    Handbook of the British Flora: a description of the Flowering Plants and Ferns indigenous to, or naturalised in the British Isles. For the use of Beginners and Amateurs (1858-9) George Bentham
    First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology (1859) Asa Gray

    Also there’s one in the library at Bolton which has no date but may be slightly later as it has a few colour plates:
    Wild Flowers worth notice for their Beauty, Uses and Associations (n.d.) Mrs. Lankester
    In the preface she mentions ladies classes in botany at Bedford College and UCL, London and also how field clubs are good places to learn (in this respect Hebden Bridge and Manchester are mentioned).
    Quote from the preface: “The poorest inhabitant of a cottage has within her reach the same delight from this pursuit as the lady of the mansion, and we have many instances of the successful cultivation of botany by those who have to labour hard for their daily bread.
    Not sure which might be termed seminal or classic works though – Bentham perhaps?

    • Mark Steadman

      Thanks for this Patricia.

      I would like to include something on the popularisation of botany in the Rossendale redisplay, so your comments here are really welcome. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d also be interested in talking further with you about the ongoing outreach work you yourself undertake.

  7. Hiya Mark,
    we’re in the process of putting together some initial notes and questions to discuss with the NLOB team, but thought we’d throw something in here quickly.

    The other week we found something very very beautiful whilst rummaging up in the attic. We live in what was once a school building (amongst many other things during its colorful past), and the attic is full of treats such as old wooden geometry sets, old school textbooks, etc.

    One day we opened a huge heavy folder and found it packed with pressed wild plants. It reminded us of the shell collection in Rawtenstall. It seems to be a students work, as we found a few corrections alongside their botanical references (written in Latin we believe). We’ll send you some pictures.

    After speaking with some of the local residents here it turns out that it was common practice here, until relatively recently, for all school children to compile such a folder. Wow! We were wondering if this was ever the case in the UK?

    • Mark Steadman

      Please send pictures. I’ve been talking with the curator/botanist Patricia Francis from Bolton Museum about the popularisation of botany. I’ll flag this question up with her. I know chemists have a long history with botany. Stephen at Rossendale informed me that his mum was a chemist and that every summer holiday would be spent compiling herbia similar to the type you describe. Patricia has made use of botany’s accessibility and aesthetic appeal to engage a wide range of groups. I plan to go across to Bolton and spend sometime with Patricia and it strikes me that this may be fruitful for you to do as well. In addition, we are planning an NLOB team meeting at Rossendale either 18th or 19th of October. If we can get Laura there as well it would be a good opportunity for teh full team including advisors to meet you both. Let me know.

      • Hope you got the pictures. The locals in Finland were never so excited about these books as we were (the fascination of the exotic/rare/new perhaps?). Most people had one hiding up in the attic somewhere, or remembered doing one themselves at school.

  8. PS. Susanne’s grandfather (Theodor Mildner) came from a chemists family and wrote books on medicinal botany. Her Aunt did the Illustrations.

    • Mark Steadman

      And this is wonderful. When Sandra and Stephen showed me the Richard Comstive archive I began thinking about this idea that it was through chemists and druggists (and then later pharmacists) that the natural sciences, perticularly botany, reached the high street, making them an important arbiter in the relationship us ordinary folk had with the natural sciences. Incidentally, an interesting series has just concluded on TV here in teh UK about a 19th century chemists. I’ll see if we can re-view this online and send a link. Not sure what anyone’s saying about the historical content of the programme but on a simple level it serves to foreground this very subject. Susanne… could I have a title of the grandfather’s… perhaps if you have them, images of the illustrations. Particia Francis has a lot of understanding of the relationship between botany and art/illustration… and has done a lot of outreach focussed work on these themes.

  9. “One aim of NLOB’s is to interview retired museum staff, many of whom worked as assistants to yet older generations of museum staff.”

    Have you made any progress here?

    PS. Are curators of small museums such as the Rossendale Museum losing control, or do they feel that they are losing control (curatorial, creative, etc)? Are exhibitions losing their individuality? Just thought we’d throw the question in – all a bit subjective of course!

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