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Abingdon Museum’s Victorian Roots

Blog post 20th August 2020

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Recently Abingdon Museum celebrated its centenary, and showcased its history with an exhibition. The Museum Committee was first established in 1920, not in Victorian times, but here I want to show that the ideas which informed the foundation of the museum go back to that era.

As a starting point, lets take a look at the “founding fathers” of Abingdon Museum. They were John West, a coachbuilder, Thomas Townsend, a Councillor and sometime Mayor of Abingdon, and Dr Martin, a GP. In 1919 these three gentlemen offered their private collections, initially on loan, to form the foundation of a public museum for Abingdon. These men were already of a certain age – you could probably even call them “old”.

Thomas Townsend had been Mayor of Abingdon in 1889/90, and he had been a Councillor long before then. He is featured in the painting of the Corporation of Abingdon, painted in 1877/78, and he does not look like a very young man in that.

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Thomas Townsend, photographed by Henry J. Brooks in the late 19th century.

I don’t have the life dates for John West, but I know that his son Timothy was born in 1861. John West died shortly after offering his collection in 1919. The life dates for Dr Martin are unknown as well, but we can assume that he was a contemporary of the other two men.

This roots our founders firmly in the Victorian age. This is the era which would have shaped their thinking and their attitudes, in which they spent most of their lifetimes, and during which they would have accumulated their collections. Looking at those Victorian ideas will provide some insight into why these men were collecting, and why they offered their collections for the museum.

Townsend, West and Martin were not scientists, academics or professional researchers, yet they accumulated these collections, mostly of fossils and natural history specimens, but also of antiquities and what they called “bygones”. So why did they do it?

Collecting things was nothing new. It started in the 16th century with the cabinets of curiosities, the “Wunderkammer” (literally “chamber of wonders”). These were owned by royalty, noblemen and wealthy merchants. Part of the motivation for having one was probably showing off, but part of it was also trying get a picture of the world, to make sense of it in a systematic fashion. There was also a desire to preserve rare and valuable items. Only wealthy people though could afford a cabinet of curiosities. Partly this was because what was collected was the rare and precious and special – not the local fossil sponges, but unicorn horns.

By the time our three collectors were active, this had changed. Sure, having some money came in handy, because perhaps you couldn’t pick up everything you wanted yourself. Many collectors bought things from other collectors and grew their collections that way. But the collecting focus had changed to the local and the everyday, the things that were around you, or perhaps underneath you, in the case of fossils and archaeology.

Others, like General Pitt Rivers, were not so much about the local – if you go to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford you will see that he collected stuff from all over the world. But what he collected where everyday items, the things that ordinary people made and used, and not rare and precious treasures.

Looking at our founding fathers, we can assume that as a coachbuilder, like John West, or a GP, like Dr Martin, they weren’t poor, but they wouldn’t have stood out as being particularly wealthy either. They belonged to the comfortably off middle classes.

This brings me to another relevant point about Victorian society: it was the middle classes who were dominant now.

As Simon Heffer writes about the new middle class: “It used its money to buy houses and land that had previously been their [the gentry’s] preserve; it sent its children to the gentry’s schools and sometimes even its universities; it sought to move on the fringes of its society and sometimes more deeply than that; it did so with imperfect manners and taste, which it sought precipitately to improve; it sometimes attempted, successfully, to marry above its station. It did all these things thanks to having made fortunes in trade, and having better liquidity than some of its social superiors.”

So, while acquiring all these things that used to be the preserve of the nobility, the middle classes now acquired collections as well. They could afford it, and moreover, they wanted to improve their education and their tastes. The new bourgeoisie might have been financially better off, but on the other hand the gentry could still sneer at it for being vulgar and uncultured. So the successful middle classes tried to improve their “imperfect manners and taste”. They wanted to become more cultured, better educated, more respectable. They wanted refinement and civilisation, and an occupation with science or archaeology was a way to achieve that.

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Pteridomania – the ‘Fern Craze’ had people go out and dig up ferns, carrying heaps of them home like the couple on the left.
(“Gathering Ferns” by H. Paterson)

The Victorian age was the hey-day of the amateur naturalist. It was not only respectable to be one, it was also fashionable. Perhaps you have heard of the Victorian ‘fern craze’, which lasted for about 50 years. Everybody went just went crazy about ferns. People collected them for their gardens to plant “Ferneries”, or if they didn’t have a garden, they put them into a sort of tank called a Wardian case. Or they pressed the leaves and collected them. It was all the rage for quite a while, and some fern species even became endangered because people dug them up for their collections.
 

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Different designs of Wardian cases to display your ferns in. They are essentially miniature greenhouses.

So being a collector and a naturalist was respectable, fashionable and in line with the Victorian movement towards self-improvement. It was something non-frivolous yet enjoyable to spend your free time on.

But what role did museums play in all that? They too had a part to play in lifting the population onto a higher level of civilisation.

It was largely middle-class people who went about improving and refining themselves, but what about others? What about the lower classes, the working classes, the poorer people? They were not naturally refined or civilised, either, but, the thought went, they should be.

This is where museums had their part to play. Public museums, it was thought, could exert a civilising and improving influence on their visitors. Often these museums were free, so money was no barrier for even poor people to visit and avail themselves of the improving atmosphere. Franz Boas wrote in 1907 that a visit to the museum “counteracts the influence of a saloon and of the race-track”. Another view from Victorian times held that public museums and libraries were just as indispensable to municipalities as drainage or the police.
 

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Visitors crowd the zoological gallery at the British Museum.
Image from the Wellcome Collection, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

So collections and museums were good for the collectors but also good for the community.

Abingdon Museum came into being in the early 20th century, a couple of decades after the Victorian era, but one can still see the Victorian attitudes echoed in the concept they came up with for presenting the collections.

The first thing the Council did was to hire a professional from the Oxford University Geology Department to catalogue and arrange the collection. His progress report lays out clearly how the founders approached the idea of a museum.

At its conception it was called The Abingdon Museum of Natural History and Antiquities, which will give you a clue to the contents of the planned displays.

At the second meeting of the Museum Committee, the whole Council was invited to come and view the Museum. The minutes state that “The specimens and method of arrangement were explained by Mr Bayzand and the inspection occupied some two hours.” This will surely convince you of the seriousness of the enterprise.

Mr Bayzand, the aforementioned geologist from Oxford University, had previously given a progress report at the first ever meeting of the Museum Committee. In it he makes clear where the purpose of the museum lay. The aim of his work was to create a “most interesting and educational exhibit”. The methods of classification he used were the scientific and scholarly ones he used in his job. We don’t know how the displays looked like, but I think we can imagine row upon row of shells, corals and other fossils, all arranged in precise taxonomic order. As Mr Bayzand wrote:

‘The Museum when arranged should prove of great educational value, both for Nature study as taught in our elementary schools and to the student of Natural History. I might here mention that in the proposed new curriculum of education, that museums will be utilised by the Board of Education for the teaching of Nature Study, both for teachers and pupils. Conferences are now taking place between the Council of the Museums Association and the Secretary of the Board of Education.’

Clearly the emphasis was on education. Mr Bayzand is talking specifically about schools in his report, but the museum was not intended to be just for school visits, it was for the local people as well. I haven’t got a handy quote to underline this, but my feeling is that what the museum’s founders had in mind was to show and teach the people something about the local history. This, they hoped, would foster a pride in their hometown. And if people are proud of their local history, if they own it, they will care for the town. It will make them better citizens. It will make them more community minded and less selfish. Mr Bayzand himself probably didn’t think so much in terms of local history (he was more focused on the fossils), but later the museum also tried to engage the public by asking to “support and increase the collections and make the Museum worthy of the Town and the historic setting”. The asked for objects like “portraits of local celebrities, trade-tokens, obsolete tools, bygones”, so clearly with more of a local history slant. They also appealed for voluntary help with arranging and labelling.

While I admit that this is somewhat speculative, I think what shines through in what I have just quoted is a desire to make the Museum a showcase of the best that the Town has to offer. By appealing for the public for help, the Museum committee was trying to make the people of Abingdon stakeholders in this. So perhaps I am not overstating the matter when I say that you can still find a trace here of the Victorian concept of the museum as a civilising and “culturising” place. The civilising influence does not come only through straightforward education but through a sense of ownership and local pride.

And I even think that this spirit lingers on in the museum today, as a place where local people can connect to and celebrate their heritage, and outsiders can see what a great and interesting place we live in.

Elin Bornemann

Acknowledgement

The quote from Simon Heffer is taken from his book High Minds. The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (2013).

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