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A New Research Seminar Based in the Museum

Spring, 1995

The University of Oxford is well supplied with seminars in the history of science and technology. A general seminar is held weekly in the first term of the year, usually organized by Professor Robert Fox. Weekly seminars on early modern topics follow in the second term, this year arranged by Scott Mandlebrote and Jim Bennett. A series on recent science in Oxford, conducted by Robert Fox and John Roche, concludes the year. In addition to all of these, twice-weekly seminars are held throughout the year in the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine.

The tendency to favour physical sciences in the general seminar has continued this year with a series on the history of astronomy organized by Jim Bennett while Robert Fox was on sabbatical leave. Given this emphasis, it has been suggested that there would be a following for a seminar directed more towards natural history and related topics. Richard Drayton, Tutor in History at Lincoln College, and Jim Bennett have combined this idea with the growing interest in collections and museums in the field of science studies to found a new seminar entitled ‘Collection and Comparison in the Sciences’. While natural history will be a significant component of this seminar, similar and related methodologies are widespread in science, even for example in astronomy.
The Old Ashmolean building is an appropriate site for such a seminar. As the first purpose-built public museum in Britain – and possibly in the world – it occupies an important place in museum history. Indeed, the building originally encompassed a wider and more ambitious range of activities than is associated with the modern museum. Collecting and comparison extended across natural and artificial specimens without the clear distinctions automatically assumed today. Collection, systematization and experiment were complementary aspects of both natural history and natural philosophy and all were carried out in the combination of gallery, lecture room and laboratory that was the original institution.

To test the water for interest in this area, fortnightly seminars have been arranged for Trinity Term 1995 with a series of Oxford speakers. The seminars will take place in the basement of the Museum on Wednesdays at 5 p.m.