Here on the Yorkshire coast we are lucky to have two of the finest geological museums in the country: Whitby Museum in Pannett Park and Scarborough’s very own Rotunda. The Rotunda has been celebrating the anniversary of its re-opening in 2008 – that historic event saw the museum going back to its original purpose as a museum of geology. I was asked to give a talk about all this at the Rotunda, and it set me thinking about what museums are for, and how they have changed over the last 200 years or so.
When the Rotunda was built in 1829 museums had a clear purpose – they were to show the public the latest innovations. These were often mixed in with some objects from ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, but this was a time of rediscovery of the classical world, so these too were at the cutting edge of knowledge. The Rotunda is a prime example, showing off William Smith’s revolutionary discovery that different rock strata each hold different groups of fossils – and that these fossils are unique identifiers of the rocks. Museums were used for research (the Rotunda had a laboratory in the basement) and science teaching.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 showed British ingenuity to the world and more and more museums continued this theme. The culmination of the heroic age of museums was the opening of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881. The building covered five acres and was built to hold samples of everything that nature could offer.
But by then museums were being overtaken by events. A plethora of discoveries showed that it was simply impossible to contain everything in one building, and gigantic museums were just exhausting for visitors. More seriously research and education moved to schools and hospitals leaving museums as dull spaces without a real purpose beyond preserving the past.
In the last 30 years or so this began to change as museum curators started to understand how to attract, entrance and amaze their visitors. The best have used the hidden riches in their collections to create great experiences for visitors. The Rotunda and Whitby Musuem are now magical places, full of objects of wonder. Go see them while you can.