Before the British Museum: the Repository of the Royal Society

Collections

From the outset of the Royal Society, Fellows believed it would be useful for the new institution to have its own museum. In 1667 Thomas Sprat wrote that the Society was working towards a General Collection of all the Effects of Arts, and the Common, or Monstrous Works of Nature', and that the Fellows had already drawn together into one Room, the greatest part of all the several kinds of things, that are scatter'd throughout the Universe.' Ideally this collection, the Repository' as it came to be known, would display natural objects of every kind, enabling the viewer to see at a glance the subtle variations in shells, or the remarkable differences in the plumage of British and Oriental birds.

Portrait of Nehemiah GrewPortrait of Nehemiah Grew, 1800

Curiosities

Wealthy Renaissance noblemen interested in arts and sciences had often collected cabinets of curiosities' displays of rare or strange objects such as mechanical devices, exotic animals, and curiously-formed stones. However, the Royal Society wanted their collection to be employed for considerable Philosophical and Usefull purposes', not simply something to provoke wonder and surprise. In 1681 Nehemiah Grew published a catalogue of the Repository. The catalogue described each object in detail and attempted to define them in an ordered way, comparing them with similar items in other contemporary museum catalogues and noting differences. Grew's catalogue advertised the Society's Repository to foreign natural philosophers, and sparked new interest in the Society's work.

Portrait of Sir Christopher WrenPortrait of Christopher Wren, ca 1690, by John Closterman.

Instruments and Objects

The Repository reflected the Society's interest in every area of natural philosophy and human activity. The collection included scientific instruments, donated by Fellows including Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton. These were available for Fellows to borrow and use. Some instruments, such as the large air pump, were demonstrated many times at meetings. Other devices included models of inventions, such as William Petty's twin-hulled ship, or Robert Hooke's weather clock', which measured rainfall, temperature and atmospheric pressure and recorded its readings on a roll of paper.

The objects donated to the Repository were kept first in Robert Hooke's rooms at Gresham College, where the Society held their earliest meetings, and later in a purpose-built room at the Society's new home in Crane Court. There is no record of the way in which they were kept or displayed, but the Society's accounts for 1669 record a payment of £6 for four chests of drawers for the Repository. As curator, Hooke regularly showed the collection to visitors. Although it was not open to the general public, foreign natural philosophers and visiting dignitaries were often as eager to see the Repository as they were to attend a meeting of the Society.

Portrait of John WilkinsPortrait of John Wilkins, ca. 1670-72 by Mary Beale

Classification

Fellows such as Martin Lister had already begun to investigate British flora and fauna. Lister's Historiae Animalium Angliae, illustrated by his daughters Susanna and Anne, was published in 1678, adding greatly to knowledge of British spiders and molluscs. Grew used Lister's work when he was compiling his catalogue of the Society's Repository.

Grew not only described the shells in the Repository, but also attempted to classify them in a logical order. Earlier natural philosophers had already suggested methods of classification for natural objects, but it was a question that would not be resolved until the 19th century. Collections like the Royal Society's Repository held enough shells or other specimens to allow new attempts at creating a useful classificatory system. Grew was influenced by John Wilkins, a Founder Fellow and Bishop of Chester, who had created his own series of tables reflecting the relationships between natural things. Wilkins's work was part of a larger project to create a new language which would express these relationships in a simple and logical way.

Map of AveburyPlan of the stone circles of Avebury, 1663

History and Exploration

The early Fellows were interested in human activity, past and present. Some collected items connected with the history of Britain, such as funerary inscriptions from local churchyards or Anglo-Saxon coins. John Aubrey made detailed drawings of Avebury and Stonehenge, and Martin Lister sent in sketches of the Roman multangular tower and medieval town walls of York. In the 18th century many Fellows also joined the Society of Antiquaries (founded in 1707), and the two institutions were closely connected.

These interests were not confined to Britain. Exploration and trading posts in America, Asia and Africa provided a huge amount of new information about flora and fauna, and also about native life. Ethnographic objects were sent to England along with preserved plants and animals, and visitors to the Repository might have been shown Native American items such as a purse made from porcupine quills or two pairs of deer-skin shoes like gloves', brought from New York.

The DodoThe Dodo after Roelandt Savery

Donations

The Repository had begun in a relatively humble way with donations from Fellows. However, early in 1666 the Society bought the entire collection of Robert Hubert, who had displayed his curiosities to the public for many years near St Paul's Cathedral. The collection was well-known and the Society paid £100 for such items as a giant's thigh-bone (found in Syria), the leg of a dodo, and a sloth from Brazil. Grew later identified the giant's thigh-bone as the leg bone of an elephant.

It was much more common for objects to be donated to the Society. They were sent not only by Fellows, but also by surgeons, clergymen, sailors, travellers, merchants and noblemen. Henry Howard FRS, Duke of Norfolk, donated an Egyptian mummy; John Houghton FRS, a London apothecary, brought in a bundle of different seeds, and Sir Thomas Crisp FRS, a merchant, sent a curiously twisted elephant tusk from Africa. Collecting objects for the Repository was one way in which early Fellows could be involved in the work of the Society

Natural History and Monsters

Natural history dominated the Repository collection. Grew described a huge variety of plant and animal specimens in his catalogue, many of which had been sent from abroad. These specimens were extremely useful to Fellows investigating specific areas of natural history. John Ray and his collaborator Francis Willughby used some of the Repository's specimens for their publications on birds and fish. In some cases they were unable to find a live example of the required species, but could illustrate their work by consulting a specimen preserved in the Society's collection. Fossils provoked speculation about the possibility that some species had become extinct, stimulating research into geology and the Earth's prehistory.

There was a strong emphasis on malformed, or monstrous', natural history specimens, including a chicken with four legs sent from Surrey, a one-eyed colt, and even a monstrous cucumber (it was over four feet long). Although these curiosities were always popular because of their strangeness, they also served a useful function. By studying abnormalities, much could be learnt about normal physiology.

Hans SloanePortrait of Hans Sloane, by Godfrey Kneller 1716.

Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane, secretary and later President of the Royal Society, was one of the greatest collectors of his time. He spent the money he earned as a popular London physician on books, manuscripts, art, coins, and natural history specimens of every kind, often buying whole collections from contemporary botanists and zoologists. His museum, housed in several rooms at his mansion in Bloomsbury, was open to the public by appointment. Sloane's contact with other Royal Society Fellows and the Repository influenced not only his collecting activities, but also his strong commitment to compiling systematic and accurate catalogues he described the latter as his most significant contribution to the progress of science.

At his death in 1753, Sloane left a will specifying that his collections be offered for sale, first to the King and then to the Royal Society, for a small fraction of their estimated value of £80,000. Sloane hoped that his museum would be kept intact; this was ensured when Parliament decided to take over the collections, for the Honour and Advantage of this Country'. They became the foundation of the British Museum, and can still be used for scientific or historical research today

The Legacy

In 1776, a room for the Repository was accidentally omitted from the architect's plans for the Society's move to Somerset House. Since no further rooms were available, it was decided that the Repository should be transferred to the British Museum. On 15 June 1781, the British Museum's Donations Book records receipt of a large collection of natural and artificial curiosities, being the museum of the Royal Society'. Some of these objects remained at the museum. Others were among the anatomical specimens sold in 1809 to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Later, a final transfer of all appropriate British Museum collections was made to the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, due to natural decay, most of the objects from the Repository have not survived to the present day. However, researchers are continuing to identify those that are still intact, shedding more light on a collection that existed before the British Museum.

Acknowledgements

The Natural History Museum
The Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons
Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, King's College London

Exhibition organised in association with the AHRC-funded project Free-thinking and Language-planning in late 17th century England'.

Text prepared by Felicity Henderson (King's College London) with the assistance of Jenni Thomas (Queen Mary)

Further reading

Ken Arnold, Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums (Ashgate, 2006)

Michael Hunter, Between Cabinet of Curiosities and Research Collection: The History of the Royal Society's "Repository"', in Establishing the New Science: the Experience of the Early Royal Society (Boydell, 1989)

Arthur MacGregor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (British Museum, 1994)

Marjorie Swann, Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

Events and exhibitions

We run a programme of regular events, conferences and exhibitions on the history of science for researchers and members of the public.

Audio recordings and video recordings are available for many of our events.

An archive of some of our past exhibitions is also available.