Save chapter to my Bookmarks
Cite this chapter
Print this chapter
Share a link to this chapter
Description: William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum
~When the Royal Academy of Arts in London was founded in 1768, exactly two hundred and fifty years ago, Dr William Hunter (1718–1783) became its first professor of anatomy. The exhibition William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, together with this publication, marks another anniversary: the tercentenary of Hunter’s birth. The...
PublisherYale Center for British Art
View chapters with similar subject tags
Directors’ Foreword
When the Royal Academy of Arts in London was founded in 1768, exactly two hundred and fifty years ago, Dr William Hunter (1718–1783) became its first professor of anatomy. The exhibition William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum, together with this publication, marks another anniversary: the tercentenary of Hunter’s birth. The ambitious project to honour this historic moment is the result of a highly enjoyable, stimulating, and challenging collaboration between the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and The Hunterian, at the University of Glasgow, aimed at exploring the interplay between the arts and sciences in the pursuit of knowledge over the course of the eighteenth century, during a critical period in the development of many of the institutions which are now key components of the public infrastructure of much of the modern world.
In the twenty-first century, Hunter’s collection remains a uniquely coherent and hitherto under-researched survival of Enlightenment collecting. William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum represents the first opportunity in some one hundred and fifty years, since the demolition of the original Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in 1870, to assess fully the contribution made by Hunter to the development of the modern museum as a public institution. Hunter created his museum to be used as a source of knowledge and instruction, encompassing outstanding paintings (including works by Rembrandt, Chardin, and Stubbs) and works on paper, coins and medals, anatomical and zoological specimens, shells, insects, rocks, minerals, and fossils. He possessed material from Spain, the Middle East, and China, as well as items brought back from James Cook’s “first-contact” voyages to the South Pacific. Finally, Hunter was an avid collector of medieval manuscripts and incunabula; these were located within the intellectual structure of one of the most important “working” libraries of eighteenth-century London, which included publications by friends and contemporaries, including Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne.
Since Hunter’s collection arrived in Glasgow from London in 1807, the increasing divide between art and science and the separation of scholarly disciplines have led to its gradual dispersal across the University of Glasgow. In some segments of the collection, there has been dismantling and even occasional destruction or loss, though extraordinarily the majority of objects have survived. The present project has provided a critical juncture at which to reassemble the many parts of the collection and reconsider the subtle interconnections among them and their relationship to eighteenth-century forms of Western knowledge, as well as how those forms of knowledge were influenced by systems of thought from across the world. By placing the diverse elements of the collection in close proximity—in the exhibition, the publication, and ultimately, in years to come, in newly conceived displays of The Hunterian’s permanent collection at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall—we can recover and critique, through an understanding of historical context, the ideas and concepts that lay the foundations for the modern museum.
Our multipronged approach to restaging Hunter’s collection permits varied encounters with a culture in which notions of professional expertise, taxonomy, visibility, and preservation were only newly being applied to the study of objects and to the institutions designed to house them and make them accessible to the public. Although the exhibition and publication were originally prompted by Hunter’s birth-year tercentenary, it must be stated explicitly that the intention has not been to laud William Hunter as a faultless figure or to write a history of medical progress. Instead, we have sought to present a balanced account of the circumstances that made possible a collection like Hunter’s. This has required taking a critical stance in considering the means by which Hunter amassed certain objects—notably, his anatomical and natural history preparations, lead and plaster casts derived from human bodies, as well as his ethnographic artefacts (what Hunter and his contemporaries termed “curiosities”), including sacred carvings, tools, and textiles brought back from the South Seas. Hunter’s largely intact collection is a material testament to Enlightenment thought, and as such it expresses an arrangement of categories of knowledge now somewhat alien. We must remind ourselves time and again that the formation of Hunter’s collection was inextricably tied to deeply problematic aspects of eighteenth-century economic and social culture: imperialism, colonialism, slavery, domination over nature, and patriarchal structures that directly or indirectly maintained control over the female body. The understanding of these social problems is likewise inseparable from our understanding of the development of modern taxonomies and of the scholarly disciplines relating to certain facets of Hunter’s collections that were only nascent during his lifetime (for example, entomology, geology, and palaeontology). Many effects of the social practices of Hunter’s day are unfortunately still with us, which makes it all the more relevant to examine the collection critically, in order to attain a better understanding of our relationship with the world and with one another.
In 1768, Hunter was a successful anatomy teacher, with a reputation that extended from continental Europe to North America, and a sought-after physician whose medical research and professional ascent in the field of obstetrics had brought him unprecedented proximity to the ever-growing family of King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte. He was also embarking on the great project that would occupy his energies, his financial resources, and his eye-to-posterity for the remainder of his life—the building of his diverse collection. By the mid-1760s, Hunter had faced a significant challenge. Born in the west of Scotland in 1718, he had moved to London in 1740, made the city his home, and established his career. Nonetheless Hunter remained something of an outsider: he was an expatriate Scot living in a London which, after the fall of Lord Bute’s administration in 1763, was often hostile to his fellow countrymen. Further, as a doctor educated in Scotland rather than at Oxford or Cambridge, he was precluded from admission to the Royal College of Physicians; as an accoucheur, or “man-midwife”, he worked in a field—pregnancy and childbearing—traditionally occupied by the female midwife; and as a teacher of anatomy and obstetrics whose research and pedagogic practice remained a steadfastly commercial activity, he operated in the private sphere, beyond the state-supported institutional structures which were then developing at the centre of national public life. Unmarried, and with significant capital resources, Hunter had tried unsuccessfully to obtain government support for a national school of anatomy which he would build, operate, and furnish with the singular asset he had at his disposal—his outstanding collection of anatomical preparations and its accompanying library. When teaching, Hunter told his anatomy students that while he had had to acquire knowledge through the agency of text, they would learn through the direct experience of looking and doing. The dissecting table was one location for Hunter’s pedagogic practice, his anatomical preparations the other, their glass jars—which remarkably survive—designed and ordered for teaching.
Fully aware of the posthumous vulnerability of both the materials and the precepts on which he had based a lifetime’s practice of anatomical inquiry and pedagogy, Hunter sought to find an institutional form through which he could ensure the public utility, in perpetuity, of the contents of the “cabinets, cases and apparatus for containing and preserving these” then being amassed at his new house in Great Windmill Street in London. When Hunter’s bequest finally opened to the public in 1807, housed in a Neoclassical temple built among the seventeenth-century courtyards of the University of Glasgow’s Old College, it included: a heating and ventilation system designed with the advice of his fellow Scot James Watt; the novelty of a top-lit gallery for his Old Master pictures; and storage devised to preserve and maintain the taxonomic order and intellectual accessibility of his collections, not least among them the anatomy preparations upon which he had expended so much of his life’s work. The opening of this new purpose-built museum was an accomplishment that took over forty years from Hunter’s first expression of a wish to do something “considerable” at Glasgow that “could not fail of making our neighbours stare”; the institution’s principal benefactor had by then been dead for over twenty years. Meanwhile, education in the practice of art, science, and medicine had changed significantly, not just in Britain but internationally, along with the infrastructures within which medical, scientific, and cultural knowledge were generated.
William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum has been a project as richly collaborative in identifying areas for major new research as it has been a happily shared enterprise in the making of a particularly complex exhibition. The process has inevitably asked as many challenging questions of the “modern” roles and functions of our two partner institutions, the YCBA and The Hunterian, as it has historical questions about the processes of making, collecting, and communicating knowledge which underpinned Hunter’s material legacy. Both the YCBA and The Hunterian enjoy the privilege of being modern public museums operating within globally active universities, whose role in advancing teaching and research entails engaging sensitively with the past while developing modes of thinking which increasingly transcend rigid nineteenth-century demarcations among fields and disciplines, most fundamentally between the arts and the sciences.
When this collaboration was first mooted in the summer of 2012, delivery of the publication in hand and its accompanying exhibition in time for the 2018 tercentenary of the birth of William Hunter appeared to offer unusually generous timelines. Over some six all-too-short years of research, conservation, and planning, a wide variety of colleagues and organisations in New Haven, London, and Glasgow have supported a demanding project with considerable energy, enthusiasm, and expertise. Mungo Campbell, Deputy Director of The Hunterian, the lead curator of the exhibition and editor of this publication, has ably shaped and guided this enterprise from the outset. Nathan Flis, Head of Exhibitions and Publications and Assistant Curator of Seventeenth-Century Paintings at the YCBA, came to this project in 2014. His organisation of the exhibition at the Center has been important to both partners, and he has also made an invaluable intellectual contribution as one of the authors of this volume and as its co-editor. María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui, William Hunter Tercentenary Curator at The Hunterian since 2016, has brought dedication, diplomacy, and an astonishing wealth of knowledge to this collaboration. Her academic and curatorial contribution to the project is only matched by the benefit of her unique experience of exhibition-making in both New Haven and Glasgow.
While, inevitably, most of this exhibition is drawn from the collections of The Hunterian, our generous lenders must be given special thanks, most notably the staff of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library, where Hunter’s incomparable collection of books and manuscripts is now kept. It has been almost a century and a half since Hunter’s museum collections have been seen so closely together in the richly informative context of such a significant representation from his library. In New Haven, we are deeply grateful to the Medical Historical Library at Yale University for lending to the exhibition, and also to the curatorial and collections staff at the Yale Center for British Art for their contributions.
Finally, we must acknowledge the particular generosity of a number of funders without whose support this project would not have been possible. A grant from The Royal Society of Edinburgh enabled the hosting of two international research workshops in 2014, with additional generous support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London. Museums Galleries Scotland have made two substantial Recognition grants, one to support the recruitment of the William Hunter Tercentenary Curator, the other to fund conservation and interpretation of Hunter’s great series of casts depicting the anatomy of the gravid uterus. The staging of the exhibition at The Hunterian would not have been possible without significant funds from the bequest of a graduate of the University of Glasgow, Rev Dr Donald McKellar Leitch Urie.
Three hundred years after Hunter’s birth, the objects and ideas preserved in his bequest touch deeply on the twenty-first-century agendas of the two institutions at the heart of this collaboration. We hope that both the exhibition and the publication in hand will stimulate an ongoing examination of knowledge production in our own world, just as Hunter’s activities and collections did in his time.
Amy Meyers
Yale Center for British Art
Steph Scholten
The Hunterian
Directors’ Foreword
Previous chapter Next chapter