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The Creweian Oration, 1997

Autumn, 1997

THE Professor of Poetry, James Fenton, delivered the following Oration ‘in Commemoration of the Benefactors of the University according to the intention of the Right Honourable Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham’ (1633-1721) at Encaenia, on Wednesday the 25th June, in the Sheldonian Theatre.

"IT remains my task and pleasure to praise a single donation, £1.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Museum of the History of Science, to enable it to expand its building.

Those who know the Museum may be surprised to hear that it has any scope for expansion, since it stands between the Sheldonian Building and Exeter College, hemmed in by Broad Street at the front and the old city wall to the back. But we propose to tunnel, sap, and undermine the cobbled pavement to the front, and reclaim an obscure section of the old Town Ditch to the back.

The last time such digging was undertaken, in 1679, the wall of the Exeter College privy collapsed, and the effluent nearly overwhelmed the workmen, and the wags of the day devised a ‘clownish pun’, that the Museum had been laid non formaliter sed fundamentaliter – a joke which I see has lost a little of its power to convulse.

The founder of the Museum, Elias Ashmole, ‘the greatest virtuoso or curioso that ever was known or read of in England before his time’, had a mind ‘which applied itself with equal ease and readiness to matters of business, to law, history, genealogy, heraldry, music, numismatics, medicine, botany, natural history, and to the mysteries of astronomy, alchemy and magic.’ Yet even such an encompassing mind could not predict the speed at which many of these separate subjects would expand.

Just as the earliest founders of botanical gardens, who hoped to bring together all the varieties of plant that had once bloomed in the Garden of Eden, nevertheless laid out their flowerbeds on a modest scale, because they simply could not conceive how little Aristotle, or Pliny, or Dioscorides knew of the range of species, so the devisers of the Ashmolean were not being mean, or cheapskate, or penny-pinching, when they gave their small building not one but three functions, and proclaimed these above the door.

It was the first purpose-built museum in the world – it gave the word Museum itself to our language – and its three functions were related. In the basement was the Officina Chymica, the Elaboratory, built to a fireproof design, and serving the purpose of chemical experiment. Above that was the Schola Historiae Naturalis, the teaching room devoted to the dissemination of natural knowledge. Only the top floor was devoted to the Ashmoleanum – and that floor represented taxonomy and display.

Taxonomy was everything. Those early illustrations of cabinets of curiosities seem to us at first to show a complex sort of mess, with their stuffed crocodiles and their antiquities, their flying rhinoceroses and walrus pizzle bones, their mummies and mermaids and improbabilities. A second look reveals that this mess was a system, that botany, mineralogy, anatomy, chemistry, astronomy, ethnography had here their birth. These were not idle curiosities haphazardly assembled, but rather the product of a heroic ambition to set out all knowledge in a single room.

But as the taxa proliferated and the systems changed, the cabinets of curiosities came to seem at first dated, then absurd. All over Europe the same thing happened – the collections of the Kunst-und-Wunderkammern were divided, what seemed ludicrous was jettisoned, and what retained its value went on its way into specialist museums. And ours at Oxford, the first Museum, was broken up in the 1860s, and the books went to the Bodleian, and the antiquities and curiosities to the new Ashmolean, and the zoological and mineralogical specimens to the University Museum, and the ethnographical collection to the Pitt Rivers.

One might think that there would be nothing left, but there was, and is. For within the Wunderkammer tradition, which had one foot in alchemy and the other in astrophysics, there was a special reverence for instruments. One sees that at once from the beauty of their decorations, and from the costly materials from which they are often made, from the fact that they are often signed and frequently dated – one of the earliest dated instruments in the Museum’s collection being a Persian astrolabe from the year 984.

This reverence for instruments was not lost as science rose, and is not lost today. If I bewitch myself into buying some beautiful instrument, some master piece of calibration, which can perform far more tasks than I have skill to put it to (a camera, for instance, or a plain-paper fax), I am no different from the monarchs, princes, and patrons of former centuries, with their silver-mounted microscopes and gilded orreries.

In any science museum, only a minority of the instruments on display will have been made for the purpose of original research. The great bulk of the objects were designed for education, for display, for demonstration, for entertainment, for the king in his palace or the gentleman in his library. They are part of the history of science, and part of the history of rhetoric – part of the history of technology, part of the history of ornament. This telescope is a symbol of status, this equatorium is a grant application – ‘My Lord,’ it says, ‘I have fashioned you this instrument. Be kind enough to support me in my researches.’

We understand science today to be full of competing voices with competing priorities. The history of science is in no way different. It was never a purely theoretical discourse, conducted on the ether between disembodied self-sustaining voices. It was shattered by contingency, rocked by reverses, sped forward by military success, persecuted by religion. The sum total of the objects it left in its history we call the material culture of science, and we should expect the understanding of that material culture to be ‘enriched by insights … char acteristic of the humanities.’

In the grim world of museological theory there are those who argue that, when it comes to the public understanding of science, ‘objects do not speak for themselves – they are mute on their significance in nature or society – and as far as lay visitors are concerned, the non-verbal language of real things is no more than a museological conceit,’ that objects in exhibitions ‘do not by simply being there, make possible a distinctive (or indeed any) understanding of science’. And this attitude has led to a trend to remove collections from galleries, to replace them with vast imposing designs, with themed environments and wrap-around displays.

But the philosophy of our Museum is the opposite of this. In the last year, the Museum has begun to teach its own unique degree course in the history of science – unique in the sense that the history is studied through the medium of the objects in the collection. And over the last two-and-a-half years, five exhibitions have been mounted to focus attention on these objects and their significance, and these five exhibitions may still be visited on the Museum’s Web site, where they have been stacked up in virtual reality.

So the purpose which Ashmole assigned to his ground floor – that of dissemination – has been reasserted with vigour. And the emphasis the Museum has placed on making a new inventory of its objects, photographing them, drawing them out of storage for special exhibitions, teasing out their history, function, and context – all this new work is not misplaced either.

For it happens that, through the wisdom of its founders and the generosity of its benefactors, ours is the largest and finest collection of early scientific instruments in the world. We have 800 such instruments dating from before 1600 – our nearest rival being the museum in Florence, with 350. We have 150 astrolabes, both Islamic and Western.

But we also have the most representative collection of light microscopes, and such treasures as an archive of 15,000 early photographs – collections of a scope which could never be put together, from scratch, today. To boast of our superb antiquarian library, of all our globes, our polyhedral sundials and armillary spheres, might seem a fault. But I believe it is my job to boast of these benefactions.

When James, Duke of York, came to open the Museum in 1683, he proceded from this Theatre, through the door, across to the ceremonial east entrance of the Museum, and with his wife and his daughter, the Princess Anne, he viewed the collection first on the top floor, then banqueted on the ground floor, and thereafter descended to the Elaboratory for some chemical experiments. It was a teaching museum that was put through its paces, and it is a teaching museum which is currently being revived – far from what Ashmole envisaged, if you like, but a proper and lively reinterpretation of the spirit of his and all these other, most generous benefactions."

Previously published in the Oxford University Gazette, No. 4443, Friday 27th June, 1997, Vol. 127.