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Sculptures by Phyllis Bone

The Museum of Science and Art

Museum of Science and Art

Robert Jameson, Professor of Natural History 1804-1854 Sadly, neither Jameson nor his successor, Edward Forbes, lived to see the collection re-housed in the new national museum in 1866. Forbes had succeeded Jameson in 1854 but died before the end of the year. It was George Allman, Professor of Natural History from 1855-1870, who presided over both these events and the rapid deterioration in relationships between University and Museum which followed on the removal of the collection to the new building next door.

There were two main factors involved in this breakdown of relations between the two bodies. First, although the collection had been housed in the new building it had been agreed that the University could borrow specimens for teaching. Unfortunately, specimens were so often on loan that the collection became difficult to manage. Worse, many specimens were 'lost'. Secondly, a feeling developed in the museum that the University professors, who were still the curators of the collection, were neglecting their keepership duties.

This feeling was strengthened when Allman's successor, Charles Wyville Thomson - an ex-student of Jameson - spent only two years in Edinburgh before sailing as Director of Scientific Staff on the famous expedition of H.M.S. Challenger (1872-76).


During Wyville Thomson's absence, a report from the Department of Science and Art stated that;

"... the duties of the keeper of the Natural History Collections have never been fulfilled by the present professor ... who declined to perform them during the whole two years which he spent in Edinburgh".

It was concluded that the department would appoint its own curator and the museum would continue as a body totally independent of the University. Having lost access to the second collection, the University now set about acquiring a third collection for its own use.

In the early spring of 1871, an incident occurred that illustrates the failing relationship between the two bodies. As can still be seen today the Old College building is joined to the Royal Museum by an enclosed bridge -Edinburgh's "Bridge of Sighs".

Bridge of Sighs On one particular evening, the museum was having a reception party at which many Edinburgh dignitaries could be found. Alcoholic refreshments for the guests and the reception band were stored in the bridge. However, unknown to the museum authorities and their guests, the Natural History students were having a party of their own on the University's side of the bridge. The students' festivities included stealing and consuming every keg and bottle of the museum's stock leaving the reception party totally without refreshment. Tempers, understandably, flared and an enormous padlock was fixed to the University door of the bridge. Since then, the bridge has been used as an aquarium, a laboratory and is currently employed as a storeroom for the museum, the padlocked door having been replaced with a solid wall.

It seems necessary here to offer an explanation for what must appear as lamentable behaviour on the part of Allman, Wyville Thomson and the University. This digression also helps to show how the study of animal biology has developed in the University during the last 130 years. Prior to Forbes' appointment in 1854, the Professors of Natural History had been generalists concerned with studies and lectures on animals, plants and minerals. Much time was spent, as we have seen, on collecting and describing new specimens and in revealing the enormous diversity of living organisms. Forbes' appointment, short though it was, was a turning point in the story of the chair of Natural History. From this time, its incumbents concentrated on animals.

The mid to late nineteenth century was an exciting and productive period for those interested in animals. The exchange of information flourished throughout Europe via books, monographs and learned societies. Methods for studying animals, their physiology and behaviour developed. Above all, it was a time when the world was generally available for peaceful and scientific travel. Forty years before, in 1834, the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle had stimulated Darwin, in parallel with Wallace who had also travelled widely in South America and the Far East, to formulate revolutionary ideas on evolution.

Gymnoblastic Hydrozoa: SAGARTIA ADAMSIA Gymnoblastic Hydrozoa: CEREACTIS ELOACTIS
Both Allman and Wyville Thomson were themselves brilliant scientists, committed to the study of marine animals and their biology. Allman's work on Gymnoblastic Hydrozoa gave us a fundamental understanding of the biology of sea-firs, jellyfish and corals. A superb artist, he left in his monograph published by the Ray Society, a record of these organisms which, even today, is standard reference material.

The achievements of Wyville Thomson in studying the marine life of both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, prior to his appointment to the University in 1870, culminated in the great 'Challenger' voyage (1872-76).

The scientific results of this voyage were published in fifty volumes (London 1880-95) under the direction of Sir John Murray who had accompanied Wyville Thomson. Specialists in every branch of science studied the collection and data obtained by the voyage and assisted in the production of the reports. It is no exaggeration to suggest that with the voyage of the HMS Challenger, the science of oceanography was born. Taking into account the scientific climate of the Victorian age and the exceptional qualities of Allman and Wyville Thomson, is it really so surprising that both chose to pursue their own lines of research rather than serve as curators for collections amassed by their predecessors?

Even though Wyville Thomson had left Edinburgh to sail on the HMS Challenger, the Department did not go into a state of hibernation. Two very eminent scientists presided over the Chair of Natural History, each for half of Wyville Thomson's four year voyage. Julius Victor Carus taught in the first two years and Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous comparative anatomist in the last two.