St George’s Nature Study Museum

The derelict St George's Nature Study Museum

In one corner of the churchyard of St George in the East, Stepney, stands a forlorn brick building. Its roof timbers have collapsed, and the doors and windows are boarded up. Many walk past on their way across the churchyard but few give the derelict ruin a glance. Trees have taken root within the structure and perhaps this is appropriate, for at one time this small building was a nature study museum.

Faded sign: 'Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Nature Study Museum'

It was originally built in 1877 as a mortuary chapel, a place to store bodies before burial. Between 1884 and 1900, over a hundred bodies a year were brought to the chapel, and in some years more than two hundred.

In 1892 the Whitechapel Municipal Museum opened in a room in the newly established public library on Whitechapel Road. The museum benefited from a substantial donation from the Reverend Daniel Greatorex, vicar of St Paul’s Whitechapel. Greatorex had travelled widely, visiting the USA, Canada, the Middle East and Australia. During his travels he collected weapons, wood carvings, and a wide variety of animal specimens including snakes, turtles, and the jaws of a great white shark. This collection formed the nucleus of the museum, which changed its name to Stepney Borough Museum in 1903.

In the meantime the use of mortuaries had declined, and in 1904 the chapel at St George’s was converted into a Nature Study Museum and opened on 3rd June.

Invitation to the opening of the Nature Study Museum 3rd June 1904

It was a branch of the Stepney Museum, initiated by Kate Marion Hall, curator at Stepney, and Claude Hinscliffe, co-curate of St George’s. Part of Greatorex’s collection was moved to the new museum, which became part zoo, part museum, as live exhibits were added.

Alongside the more traditional exhibits of stuffed birds, butterflies, and moths were live sea anemones, tropical and fresh water fish, frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders. One of the birds was an Indian Bee-eater found in a tea barge in the nearby St Katherine’s Dock. The museum also featured a monkey, although this had a tendency to bite visitors and staff. Outside were wild flower gardens, including a beehive with a glass wall, viewable from inside the museum. According to Arthur Mee’s London, this was the first municipal beehive: “We may watch them at work behind glass, and see them gathering honey from the bed of wild flowers planted every year”. The museum was intended to give those living in the city an experience of the natural world.

Children viewing exhibits at St George's Nature Study Museum

It was certainly popular. Up to a thousand people a day reputedly visited during the summer months, with seventy people at a time filling the small room. But war interrupted and then caused the museum’s demise. It was boarded up during the First World War, and re-opened in 1920. After the Second World War began it became difficult to get new live specimens, and many children had been evacuated to the countryside. The museum closed for the last time on 10th March 1942, and the remaining exhibits were transferred to the Stepney museum.

The churchyard gardens were restored in 2007–8 but the building was left untouched. A number of plans for new uses – none of them for a museum – have so far come to nothing. So the building remains derelict, the sign on the lintel a fading reminder of one of London’s unusual small museums.

Panoramic view of the churchyard at St George in the East

Archival photographs courtesy of St George in the East; other photos by the author.

Jaquet Droz’s Spectacle Mechanique or Mechanical Exhibition

advert for Jaquet Droz's Mechanical Exhibition in King Street, Covent Garden

In the last post I described Henri Maillardet’s Automatical Museum, a display of automata. Maillardet worked for Henri-Louis Jaquet Droz, a Swiss expert in clockwork mechanisms. Maillardet’s was not the first such show in London, as in 1775–6 Jaquet Droz himself presented a Mechanical Exhibition there. At the Great Room in King Street, Covent Garden, the show comprised three automata and a mechanical picture of a Pastoral Scene. Such pictures had been seen since the early 18th century, with the first in London shown by William Pinkethman at the Duke of Marlborough’s Head in Fleet Street in 1709. Jaquet Droz’s picture was about four and a half feet square and showed a palace and formal gardens with fountains. Above and behind the palace was a grotto with many miniature figures including a shepherd and shepherdess playing music, grazing sheep, singing birds, and fruit trees which blossomed and bore fruit. But the main attraction of the exhibit was probably the three automata: a writer, a draughtsman and a musician, who played ‘divers Airs on the harpsichord’. 

The exhibition was not cheap to enter. The five shilling admission would be probably over £20 today, but in 1776 Jaquet Droz also appears to have offered private viewings of the show for one guinea, roughly £95.

At the same time Jaquet Droz was also advertising his skills in prosthetics, having constructed artificial hands for someone born without them, flexible enough to use cutlery, ‘write with great freedom’, and manage the reins of a horse.

Some of Jaquet Droz’s automata are still on show at the Musée d’art et d’histoire Ville de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

The adverts are in the collection of the Bodleian Library, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Maillardet’s Automatical Museum

Advert for Maillardet’s Magnificent Automatical Museum

In 1798, Henri Maillardet decided to move his Automatical Exhibition to new premises. Business must have been good, because the Great Room in Spring Gardens was advertised as offering ‘better accommodation’ than the house in Howland Street, not far from Fitzroy Square. The new venue was also close to Charing Cross, a much more central location than Fitzrovia. Maillardet ran his ‘Magnificent Automatical Museum’ in Spring Gardens from 1798 to 1817. The Museum’s exhibits included automata of a lady playing sixteen different Airs on an organ, a child who both wrote and drew, a Conjurer, and a rope dancer. Maillardet also showed miniature automata in the forms of an Ethiopian caterpillar, an Egyptian lizard, and a Siberian mouse. He was the London representative of Jaquet-Droz, a family of Swiss clockwork specialists who also made automata. 

Maillardet also exhibited elsewhere at the same time. In 1812 ‘Philipstal and Maillardet’s Automatical Theatre’ was open in Catherine Street, Covent Garden. In the 1820s, some time after the Museum closed, the collection was on show at the Gothic Hall in Haymarket, and it was advertised for sale in 1828. The child writer automaton ended up in Philadelphia. It was destroyed in a fire, but parts of the mechanism survived and were fashioned into a new figure by experts at the Franklin Institute.

This video is the best of a selection featuring the automaton on Youtube.

And here’s a very brief view of one of the Ethiopian Caterpillars.

The handbill is in the collection of the Bodleian Library, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Can a Website be a Museum?

Can a website be a museum by itself? Most museums have a website, but here I’m thinking of websites that call themselves museums without representing a physical museum. Defining a museum can be tricky, but the Museums Association’s 1998 definition is the one in current use in the UK, apart from Scotland:

Museums are for people to explore and learn from collections for understanding and inspiration. To do this, a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information, which it holds in trust for society.

Although one might assume that a museum needs a building that can be visited by the public, there is nothing in this definition that says so explicitly. People can ‘explore and learn from collections’ while sitting at home browsing a museum’s website. So perhaps online museums, those that consist primarily of a website, could be rightly seen as museums. But it  depends on which definition one adopts. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) 2007 definition takes a rather different approach:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Here the idea of an institution open to the public does suggest a place that people can visit, rather than a mere website, and this would probably be most people’s idea of a museum. 

Whether websites would be seen as museums under these definitions or not, there are plenty of websites calling themselves museums. The Museum of Online Museums (a meta-Museum?) has been collecting examples for many years. They include websites for museums such as the Rijksmuseum, the Musée d’Orsay and others, art projects such as The Museum of Temporary Art, and a long list of more esoteric collections: The Handheld Games Museum, The Reel To Reel Tape Recorder Museum, the Museum of Obsolete Objects (a defunct Youtube channel), and many more. Many of the sites in MoOM’s list do not call themselves museums, and it might be better to call them archives or collections.

Here’s Part 1 of a film about The Museum of Online Museums.

Recently I’ve encountered a few online museums that could be added to this list. The Prefab Museum was originally installed in a prefabricated house in South London. Following an arson attack the Museum has been mainly online, although it also travels around the UK. The Museum of Obsolete Media is the online home of an archive of obsolete media formats.

Cover of Star Wars on Super 8 film
Cover of selected scenes from Star Wars on Super 8 film, courtesy of The Museum of Obsolete Media

Both of these Museums have collections of objects, although the Prefab Museum is no longer open, and the Obsolete Media Museum is not open to the public at all. The World Carrot Museum is of a rather different kind: “The first virtual museum in the world entirely devoted to the history, evolution, science, sociology and art of Carrots”. These three online museums show the range of interests that can occupy those who make museums, whether only online or residing in a more traditional building.

The London Toy and Model Museum

Leaflet for the London Toy and Model Museum
Leaflet for the London Toy and Model Museum

The London Toy and Model Museum was open for seventeen years in two town houses in Craven Hill, not far from Paddington Station. Appropriately enough, one of its exhibits was a Paddington Bear that once belonged to the young Jeremy Clarkson. As the brochure and ticket suggest, the emphasis was on transport and the collections included model railways of various sizes, including a ride-on miniature railway around a pond.

Also on show was a model Victorian fairground with organ music, and a working coal mine fourteen feet long and eight feet high, made by a Welsh miner named William Phelps. The model mine had been displayed at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 and took Phelps twenty years to make.

Founded by two toy collectors in 1982, the museum was later bought by the Fujita Corporation which spent £5.5 million pounds on refurbishing it. Fujita was run by Kazuaki Fujita, also a toy collector. The museum had 120,000 visitors a year and employed thirty people. In 1999, four years after Fujita’s death, the Corporation decided to close the museum saying it was no longer affordable. The collections were auctioned by Sotheby’s.

Ticket for The London Toy and Model Museum
Ticket for The London Toy and Model Museum

There are still museums partly or wholly devoted to toys in London. Pollocks was established in the 1950s and occupies a lovely old building in Scala Street. Amongst the displays is a large collection of toy theatres. And the Museum of Childhood, a museum with a fascinating history of its own, has been in East London since 1872 when it opened as the Bethnal Green Museum. Initially a rather diverse collection of objects with no clear theme, it began to become more oriented towards children from the 1920s, and was eventually reopened as the Museum of Childhood in 1974.

Images via Brighton Toy and Model Museum

A New Aviation Museum?

It can be fascinating to see how museums are represented in various media. Towards the end of the second season of the BBC TV series Detectorists, Russell and Hugh, two members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, are digging up a crashed aircraft …

Russell watches as Hugh digs up the aircraft: "Where are you going to put it all?" Hugh, standing in the excavation pit: "Open a museum, eventually" Hugh, standing in the excavation pit: "If I can find the right venue. And funding." Russell, looking down at Hugh, who holds a broken piece of aircraft: "The museum of sharp twisted metal?" Hugh: "Aviation archaeology museum". Russell: "Right".

We’ll have to wait and see what happens to Hugh’s plans, but the idea that museums are full of old junk is still alive and well.

William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall

A nineteenth century cabinet of ‘natural curiosities’

William Bullock (1773–1849) opened a Museum of Natural Curiosities in Liverpool. He brought the collection to London, showing it first in the Liverpool Museum at 22 Piccadilly.

William Bullock's museum at 22 Piccadilly
William Bullock’s museum at 22 Piccadilly

Bullock then commissioned the construction of the Egyptian Hall, officially known as the ‘London Museum and Pantherion’, which opened on Piccadilly in 1812. By then the collection included ‘upwards of Fifteen Thousand Natural and Foreign Curiosities, Antiquities, and Productions of the Fine Arts’. Bullock was a member of the Linnaen Society, which was devoted to the study of biology, and presented his exhibition ‘for the advancement of the Science of Natural History’. The ‘Pantherion’ was a kind of diorama that presented wild animals and plants as if in their natural habitats, ‘a beautiful illustration of the luxuriance of a torrid clime’. This included a giraffe, a rhino, wild cats, monkeys, porcupines, and many others.

The London Museum, or Egyptian Hall
The London Museum, or Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly

As well as animals and plants, Bullock’s collection included crafts, clothes, weapons, and works of art. Ever the showman, he organised a display of Napoleonic relics in 1815–16 and made £35,000 from the venture. Among the exhibits was Napoleon’s bullet-proof carriage, later sold to a coach maker and eventually bought by Madame Tussauds. The Hall’s contents were sold at auction in 1819 and it continued as a temporary exhibition venue throughout the nineteenth century. It was demolished in 1905.

Bullock produced illustrated catalogues to accompany his exhibitions, some of which are available online. Archive.org has a copy of the 12th edition, published in 1812.

The Museum of Fedora

Having seen the title, you might imagine a museum devoted to a single type of hat, an eccentric collector’s obsession. But as described in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the museum of Fedora contains rather different objects:

IN THE CENTER of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe. 

The building with the globes is now Fedora’s museum: every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in the medusa pond that would have collected the waters of the canal (if it had not been dried up), the view from the high canopied box along the avenue reserved for elephants (now banished from the city), the fun of sliding down the spiral, twisting minaret (which never found a pedestal from which to rise).

(Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, p.28)

Mapping Museums

Mapping Museums is a research project at Birkbeck, University of London. Led by Fiona Candlin and Alex Poulovasillis, the aim of the project is to document the UK museum sector 1960–2020.

While working briefly for the project last summer, I wrote short profiles of a small selection of the thousands of UK museums. Some are still open, but many have closed. Some of my favourites are The Douglas Museum, set up by an admirer of Houdini, the Edinburgh Wax Museum, curated by a magician, and the National Butterfly Museum. Was the latter really a museum? Read the article to find out.

You can also see the full list of museum profiles. Many of them are very short, which reflects the frequent lack of information about museums, at least when doing online research.