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  • Allison Cadle

Dispatches in Museum Origins

Beyond Glass: Layers of Preservation in Two London Museums

The two museums mentioned in this post were visited as part of the Spring 2017 Museum Origins: London and Oxford study abroad trip.

During my time in London, I visited about twenty different museal institutions. Moving through multiple museums in a day, common threads leapt out and caused me to wonder. These two particular museums, visited in the same day, wove themselves into course themes about collectors, but also had threads in common, about preservation, that I will be exploring in this post.


Glass cases of glass jars of specimens. Walking into the Hunterian Museum, in London’s Royal College of Surgeons, I was immediately enraptured by this display. Eighteenth century Scottish surgeon John Hunter was known for his anatomy school as well as his collection of thousands of skeletons, organs and other body parts, some of which remain submerged in their original containers. Grisly and gruesome are words thrown around in online introductions to the museum, but there is much more going on here.

Putting objects behind glass can sometimes have a distancing, sterilizing effect, despite the transparency, or partly because of it. Seeing is only one part of knowing. Glass tells you to look and not touch. It’s fragile, but it sends a message. Peering into glass jars holding human feet or large insects at the Hunterian made me acutely aware of my sense of touch and the senses that used to be on the other side of the glass. Part of the mission of museums is preservation, and in many cases it is a slow, uphill battle against the elements to keep museum objects in good condition. In the case of the Hunterian, more typical preservation problems were not the only issue. Sadly, much of the Hunterian collection was destroyed in an air raid during World War II, leaving approximately 3000 of the original 14000 specimens intact. This sudden destruction alongside the more gradual decay over many years means that we are sometimes left with gaps in our understanding, only a fragment of the whole picture. What survives these changes becomes even more valuable for its rarity.

Museums, to some, can seem stolid and still, but beyond their own evolving internal system is an ever-changing and interconnected outer world, full of dangers to that goal of preservation. Having many important objects in one place can be useful in caring for collections, but it can also mean that single events can wipe out many objects. In the Hunterian, there is a different level of consideration than the gradual disintegration of specimens because of the nature of fluid preservation. Our tour guide mentioned that some flecks and specks are lost when fluids are replaced in the glass containers—in the interest of preservation! Overall, the jars and the specimens within reflect the fragility and uncertainty of human bodies and the materials that help make up our lives.

One man’s vision: SIR JOHN SOANE’S MUSEUM

Sir John Soane’s museum is an historic house that brings preservation into light in a different way. It seems fitting that the museum dedicated to an architect is the structure in which he lived and worked. And it is extraordinary that it has been left mostly as-is for the past 180 years since Soane’s death. This museum is perhaps a more holistic kind of preservation than typically seen in historic homes, or at least it happens on a different scale, and with a different relationship to the collector as compared to John Hunter’s specimens. A house is a whole, and preserving it means holding the pieces of it together in a very particular way, while maintaining the spaces that were created for people to fill in certain ways. Like the Hunterian, this institution was damaged by war (it is situated right across the square from the Hunterian); in 1940, a specially-commissioned stained glass window was all but destroyed in a bombing. Buildings can contain, but there is no guarantee they won’t be broken open.

In this museum the glass of the windows, the plaster of the walls, the paintings that inhabit it, and, in fact, the whole structure are a kind of liminal zone. You are a person in the now exploring the then. A certain ambiguity in space and time pulls you into something that gets you caught in the middle. There is a similar feeling in the Hunterian with the glass jars, where the glass separates but lets you see, inviting an inspection of the boundaries between living and dead, empty and full, inside and outside.

The Hunterian and Soane’s Museum are institutions that illuminate preservation, and the way that the museum visitor is both a part of, but separate from, the museum as a whole. Throughout the Museum Origins course, we discussed collectors and collections from England, and these two institutions visited in one day brought up preservation and intention in ways that have kept me musing.


Watercolors done by Allison Cadle.

Award-Winning Travel Guides. (n.d.). Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://www.traveldk.com/destinations/europe/england/london/sights/hunterian-museum/

Knox, T. (Great Britain 2012). Sir John Soane's Museum. Annual Review 2012.