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Museums and microscopes

Posted by Stephen Johnston on November 3rd, 2007

A review of Lynn L. Merrill, The Romance of Victorian Natural History (Oxford, 1989), picks out the chapter on museums and microscopes as the most striking:

‘The cabinet, which Merrill classifies as a “small-scale museum”, and the microscope become metaphors for ways of looking at nature, since both make an exhibit out of nature. Both the objects in a museum and those under a microscope emphasize particularity, but this particularity also suggests panorama. The cabinet’s panorama consists in the meaning created by the juxtaposition of objects. Even the choice of specimens and their framing in a restricted area creates a new little world which reverberates with possibilities of the larger world. The microscope also presents a new world whose panorama is revealed within the world opened up by the lens. With the physical eye catered to by the microscope (this instrument became comparatively inexpensive by 1830), and the ever-increasing number of museums, no wonder the imaginative eye of Victorian writers became enamored with natural history.’

Martha Westwater, Modern Philology, 88 (1990), pp. 215-218

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