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Annmarie Adams on Nature’s Museums

17 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2000) review ‘Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display, CAA Reviews, Nov. 7 2000

Carla Yanni’s Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science & the Architecture of Display offers valuable lessons in how to decode the rather elusive architectural language of buildings like the Redpath Museum, as well as its relevance to the present. What was the relationship of Victorian architecture and science? How is architecture implicated in our construction of knowledge? Originally her 1994 dissertation in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, Yanni’s book is essentially comprised of case studies of three well-known British institutions: the Oxford University Museum, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, and the Natural History Museum in London.

Chapters dealing with each of these buildings are preceded by a general introduction to the evolution of the building type and another on several buildings of the 1830s and 1840s, which, although neglected by historians, acted as models in one way or another, especially for Oxford’s museum. Following the three case studies is a look at natural history museums today, a conclusion on the role of architecture in the social construction of knowledge, and a brief epilogue on two contemporary ‘arks’ in California… .

Unlike many architecture books written by art historians, Nature’s Museums includes a plethora of plans, allowing Yanni to masterfully walk readers through the spaces of the buildings. The book also includes photos taken by the author, evidence of the importance of fieldwork (in addition to more traditional archival research) to the project. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is how, with something of a postmodern sensibility, Yanni points out how the act of ‘looking’ was crucial to the development of the natural history museum. Elaborate glass roof structures were at least as much about helping visitors scrutinize objects, as they were displays of architectural virtuosity. At the same time, her book forces us to ‘look’ at the museum in a completely new way. And the text is also full of fascinating anecdotes—just like the collections of specimens she explores– such as her discussion of the ‘dinomania’ which has gripped children since the 1950s, and her suggestion that the reconstructed Crystal Palace in Sydenham (burned 1937) was actually more important than its more famous progenitor in Hyde Park.

The strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses. Some less effective aspects of Nature’s Museums are the use of subtitles, the literature review, and the concluding sections. Although subtitles may encourage the use of the book in courses, allowing students to scan the text quickly, they disrupt the flow of Yanni’s velvety prose; readers may sense, as I did, that each case study could have been book-length. The literature review, impressive as it is in its breadth of sources, still smacks of a dissertation. And finally, the glimpse of two contemporary arks – so named to recall the first natural history museum, Noah’s Ark – disconnected to the subject of the book both geographically and temporally, seems tacked on.

In the heart of McGill University, in downtown Montreal, sits a remarkable building. Supposedly Canada’s first purpose-built natural history museum at the time of its opening in 1882, the Redpath Museum is now a particularly popular place with children because of its splendid Albertosaurus libratus, among other dinosaur remains. Our four-year old son, in fact, calls it the ‘Dino Museum’. Many McGill students, unfortunately, have never been inside. Perhaps this is because the rich collections of the Redpath Museum are difficult to discern from the building’s exterior, which has always seemed to me to be a sort of Greek-temple-meets-Crystal-Palace. I once required architecture students to do measured drawings of the Redpath Museum, and they revolted. What possible relevance could a museum full of old specimens have for today’s young architects?

Annmarie Adams on Nature’s Museums

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2000) review ‘Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display’, CAA Reviews, Nov. 7 2000