The Hunterian in Glasgow – A Veritable Cabinet of Curiosities

Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

In June 2017, I was super-excited to get the chance to visit the Hunterian Museum during my trip to Glasgow.  To visit a collection that has such an old basis is pretty cool – plus they have Roman remains, which is always a draw for me.

The Hunterian is less one museum than a group of permanent galleries which show off a selection of items from their collection.  The museum I visited is the main one, which has sections on William Hunter, the Antonine Wall, medicine, Lord Kelvin and then an eclectic gallery of palaeontology, numismatics, zoology, ethnography and geography.

However, the Hunterian also has its own Art Gallery, Zoology Museum, Anatomy Museum and a micro-museum looking at country surgeons – all at other sites on campus.  And it also looks after the Mackintosh House.

The entrance to the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

The entrance to the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

William Hunter

William Hunter was born in 1718 into a middle class Glaswegian family.  At the age of 13 he enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study for a Master of Arts degree, with the intention of having a career in the church.  During his time at University, he was taught by important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, including Francis Hutcheson, who made Hunter realise that he was not destined for a life in the church.  As the Professor of Moral Philosophy, Hutcheson expounded the importance of awakening in each student “a taste for literature, fine arts and everything that is ornamental and useful in human life” which would lead him to “spread such an ardour for knowledge and such a spirit of enquiry everywhere around him”.  Well, the professor was successful with at least one student.

Hunter left the University at 19 without a degree.  He went to Edinburgh to study medicine under the influential William Cullen in 1737.  He subsequently went to London and became a resident pupil to William Smellie and trained in anatomy at St George’s Hospital, specialising in obstetrics.  His good manners and sensitivity led to him becoming the leading obstetric consultant in the city  – he became physician to Queen Charlotte and oversaw the delivery of all 14 of her children – and honestly, since he didn’t like the use of forceps in delivery, I think I’d have loved him too.

In 1768, he built the anatomy theatre in Great Windmill Street in Soho which became the centre of learning for the surgeons and anatomists of the period.  But that wasn’t all – he was a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1767 and Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy from 1768.  At the Academy he lectured on anatomy, in connection with their life classes, but concentrated on the importance of the artists’ link to nature.

But Hunter was interested in the world in general.  As well as his intriguing medical collection, he was able, with his royal and aristocratic connections, to get his hands on coins, minerals, paintings and prints, ethnographic materials, books and manuscripts, insects and other biological specimens.  When Hunter died in 1783, aged 64, he bequeathed these collections to the University of Glasgow and this formed the eclectic core of the Hunterian.  In 1807, a specially constructed building to house the museum went up by the original campus of the university.  When the university moved to the new site, the museum also moved, and in 1870 the collections were transferred to the Sir George Gilbert Scott building that it’s in today.

The Antonine Wall Gallery

If the Roman Emperor Hadrian is remembered for anything in the modern world, it’s for building a wall.  He should be remembered for starting the trend of having a beard, but history has a way of fixating on the least interesting aspect of a man’s life.

What is less well known is the fact that Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, also had a very nice beard.  And he built a wall.  In Britain.  In AD 142, possibly in reaction to the threat from the Caledonians, the Emperor decided to extend the Roman frontier further north.  Taking inspiration from Hadrian’s little venture, the new wall ran from coast to coast, from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth.

While it was a relatively simple turf and wooden structure  – as opposed to the stone used in the south – it took 12 years to finish.  There were 16 forts along the wall, and many of the inscriptions in the gallery celebrate the amount of the wall that was built by the legions who were involved.  Eight years after they finished it, the wall was abandoned.  In 208, however, the Emperor Septimius Severus ordered for it to be repaired – but within a few years the site was abandoned again.  The impermanence of the structure meant that it didn’t survive the harsh weather, and the usual ravages of time also helped to dispose of most of the remains.  But some objects survived, and they give a really interesting insight into how the Romans stayed Roman, even when they were in the middle of nowhere.

If you want to find out more about what currently remains of the wall, and read information on finds, suggested walks etc, then it’s worth looking at its own site: www.antoninewall.org 

Anyway, back to the collection at the Hunterian.  Let’s start with an interesting stone marking the distance of the section of the wall that the XXth Legion built.  The central figure shows Victory holding a laurel wreath and reclining on a globe, rather than standing as you’d expect.  This has led to the speculation that Victory is referencing a river god – possibly the nearby River Clyde.  The boar at the bottom is the emblem of the Legion.

The inscriptions really stress the victory of the Romans over the barbarians.  The images are of a generic style, used for barbarian tribes of all types – in this way they follow the form that was well established in Roman art.

The Main Gallery

The main gallery of the Hunterian is full of wonderfully eclectic objects that have been collected and donated since Hunter’s initial bequest.  The gallery is like a miniature version of the main hall at the Edinburgh National Museum, with its channelling of late Victorian industrial architecture.

You know your visit is going to be full of surprises as soon as you walk in and see a fossilised Plesiosaur (Cryptoclidus Eurymerus). He would have lived in the sea during the Middle Jurassic Period (160 million years ago).  Plesiosaurs ate cephalopods (like ammonites) and small fish, and became the dominant marine reptile of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.  This chap was excavated at the beginning of the 20th century from a clay pit near Peterborough.

And he’s been laughing ever since.

There are some interesting ancient objects on show – some ancient, including a coin of Cleopatra VII (known to most as the only Cleopatra) which is deemed by the museum to be “the best example in the world” of her coins.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an attractive piece.  There is also a varied and fascinating ethnographic collection, including four pieces which show the social and artistic impact that Europeans had on various cultures they encountered around the world.

Upstairs

In the upstairs balcony, the gallery is divided into two sections.  One deals with Lord Kelvin, whose association with the University of Glasgow began in childhood and was fully established when he returned as a professor in his early 20s.  There are objects related to Kelvin’s work as a scientist whose major contribution was in the field of thermodynamics.  The second part of the gallery looks at the role of medicine in Glasgow, highlighting some of the really cool and important contributions that have been made by the city to this field of study.  However.  I am quite squeamish.  I saw some dried and pickled objects too early on, which made me feel a bit…  so I quickly lost interest in the rest of the collection, though my companions were fascinated by it.  I think we can safely say there were some interesting medical bits and pieces – for those with the stomach for such things.

(If you want to find out more about these amazing sponges, you can have a quick look at my entry on the Dubrovnik Natural History Museum.)

Woah – that was a truly bland selection of items I just showed you from that gallery.  But there was plenty of stomach-churning stuff for those who want their stomachs churned which you can discover for yourselves.

So In Summary

The exhibits are very well presented, although it is a shame there wasn’t more on display – actually, the museum space was quite a bit smaller than I’d expected.  However, the eclectic mix of objects made it fun to explore, because honestly you didn’t know what was going to be around the corner.  Because of this, the Hunterian probably has something of interest for everyone – and that is the mark of a good museum.

Further Information

For all the usual information about exhibitions and opening times etc, the museum has its own neat though not massively educational website:  www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian

There is also a facility to search the collection – it works best if you’re looking for something specific, rather than browsing: www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk

The museum hold regular exhibitions and talks, so you might want to check their events calendar to see if you can time your visit with something fun!

How to Get There

Local transport information is available here:  www.spt.co.uk while information on how to get to Glasgow via train is available via: www.thetrainline.com 

The Hunterian Museum is part of the University of Glasgow and you end up walking through quite a bit of the university to get to the museum.  Since this part was designed by the Gothic revivalist, Gilbert Scott, it feels very Victorian and imposing – for me, it’s what a university should look like, which adds to the experience and underlines the continuing importance of this collection for research and study.

 

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