Repositories and Museums

Experimental science required materials on which to experiment; and in time the need for permanent collections of such materials was articulated. Such collections had their origins in the antiquarian collections and the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ which were assembled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across the continent, usually by independent scholars.

But if science was to become an organised activity, it needed research collections that were housed and maintained by collectives or institutions and not individuals. The transition, however, was gradual. The collection of the Tradescants, father and son, housed in south Lambeth, was open to the public for a sixpence charge. The Bodleian Library itself developed a museum in the period, also open for a fee. These were museums, but they were not, as we would say, working collections. However, the Wadham College experimental philosophy club headed by John Wilkins maintained a store of optical and mathematical instruments, sundials, magnets, and other apparatus, and there was even a statue with a speaking tube in the Warden’s gardens. After the Restoration, the Royal Society established a ‘Repository’ of natural and artificial samples, and a catalogue of the collection was published in 1681.

Perhaps the most significant institution to be founded in the period, however, was the Ashmolean Museum, now the Museum of the History of Science. This building, conveniently abutting the Bodleian and rooms of the Savilian Professors, first opened its doors in 1683. Founded ‘in imitation of the R. Society’, the Ashmolean possessed the unique strength of combining in one building a laboratory (basement), a lecture hall (ground floor), and the Museum proper (first floor). It had two separate libraries, one ‘philosophical’, the other ‘chemical’. It was therefore the site simultaneously of collecting, of lecturing, and of original research.

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