Tag Archives: cabinet of curiosities

Swansea Museum, Wales

By Elizabeth Bruton

Main Entrance, Swansea Museum
Main Entrance, Swansea Museum

Swansea Museum is located in the maritime area near the centre of Swansea and adjacent to the docklands that for so long provided the lifeblood of the city. A couple of minutes walk away is the National Waterfront Museum, re-housed and re-opened in 2005, which tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales over the last 300 years. This leaves Swansea Museum with the challenging task of telling the history of the city itself and of its inhabitants. In addition to the building itself, the museum also includes three other locations. Two of these, a ‘floating display’ of boats and a tramshed on Dylan Thomas Square, are both located in nearby Swansea Marina. The three boats which form the ‘floating display’ – the lightship ‘Helwick’, a tug boat called ‘Canning’ and ‘Olga’, and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter built in 1909 – are open to the public during the summer months. The Tramshed displays memorabilia from the former street trams of Swansea and the Mumbles tram. The route of the Mumbles tram now forms a shared-use walkway and cycle route that follows the curve of bay from Swansea city centre to the old Victorian pier at the nearby seaside town of Mumbles. The fourth museum location, the Collections Centre, is located a few miles outside of the city centre and next to Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City Football Club. The centre is open to visitors every Wednesday, 10am to 4pm, and provides opportunities to see the reserve and maritime & industrial collections.

Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum
Columns of the neo-classical building housing the main collections of Swansea Museum

The museum and its main collection are housed in a wonderful neo-classical Victorian building. In 1835 a philosophical and literary society was established in Swansea and in 1841 the Royal Institution South Wales (as it was now known) built the first purpose-built museum building in Wales, built in the neo-classical style. This impressive building is now home to the Swansea Museum, making it Wales’s oldest museum. The building and the city hosted the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meetings in 1848 and 1880. Well-known ‘men of science’ of the day such as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Swansea-born William Robert Grove (1811-1896), and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) were all strong supporters of the Royal Institution South Wales and all three men lectured here on several occasions. The lecture chamber now forms part of the museum with much of the original features still intact.

History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
History of the Royal Institution South West, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Within the walls of this magnificent building is the main museum collection, a treasure trove of objects telling the fascinating history of the city. The downstairs section of the museum has the China Gallery, the original debating chamber, temporary exhibitions, and the museum shop. The upper floor of the museum houses displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The fruits of the commercial and industrial activities of the city are on display in the China gallery, which includes pottery as far back as early Cambrian wares (1768-90). The focus of this gallery is pottery made in Swansea, including some beautiful porcelain pottery. During my visit in January 2012 there were two temporary exhibitions, a small travelling exhibition on Amundsen and a local one on Copperopolis telling the story of Swansea, Copper and the world – both definitely of interest to historians of science and industry. The latter exhibition was housed in the former debating chamber and library.

Up the winding stairs – another original feature of the building – are displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The archaeology room covers the history of Swansea from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) to medieval period, and is modest in scope. The Egyptology display is a small room with the Mummy of Hor which has been on display almost continuously since 1888. The display is very much focussed on Egyptian history and folklore and the details of how and why this object came to Swansea are only be revealed in a small photograph in the Cabinet of Curiosities room. Further information on the object can be found on the BBC History of World objects website.

The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum
The entrance to the cabinet of curiosities room, Swansea Museum

The Cabinet of Curiosities room is where, at least for this visitor, the museum comes to life. While lacking the content and interpretation of most modern museum displays, this room uses the breadth of the collection to explore the modern history of the city in its wider context. The room spans a wealth of displays and objects including (but not limited to): the model of a traditional Welsh kitchen; a brief history of the city including the World War Two bombing; a natural history of the Swansea area including the surrounding Gower peninsula (well worth a visit, particularly by bicycle); a history of the Royal Institution of South Wales; a Victorian lady’s room; a display on phrenology (sure to be of interest to historians of medicine); the chronology, historic urban and architectural photographs and drawings of the town; and other miscellanea. Towards the end of the Cabinet of Curiosity room is a small photograph of Field Marshal Lord Francis Wallace Grenfell (1841-1925) revealing how this Swansea-born gentleman choose a career in the Army over the family copper business and was posted to Egypt in the 1880s. Along with many educated Victorians of this age, Grenfell was greatly interested in archaeology and Egyptian history. He obtained the Mummy of Hor with the help of British Museum archaeologist Wallis Budge before gifting it to the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1888 along with the mummy’s coffin and other small funeral items. This visitor was left to wonder why this is not more prominently displayed alongside the Mummy itself?

The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
The Phrenology display, Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

This museum, its collection, and the wonderful historic building within which they are housed are well worth a visit and a day trip to Swansea could be easily filled with a trip to the Swansea Museum, the nearby Waterfront Museum, and a wander around the nearby dockland area. The museum is free to enter and has plenty to amuse, entertain, and educate those of all ages and interests, and with much to impart to interested historians of science.

Website: http://www.swansea.gov.uk/swanseamuseum

Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum
Cabinet of Curiosities room, Swansea Museum

Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton

The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road
The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road, by The Voice of Hassocks. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In many ways Edward Booth (1840-1890) fits almost too well into a stereotypical image of an eccentric Victorian naturalist. In the brief biography on the Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website (link in further reading) the accompanying photo shows a distinguished man, dressed smartly in waistcoat and jacket topped off with a top hat and fine full beard – someone seemingly comfortable with the high social class he was born into. Booth’s diaries record the names of his hunting dogs, yet there is no mention of the name of his no-doubt long-suffering wife. It would be difficult for him to more epitomise the standard perception of a Victorian gentleman; what he collected was dependent primarily on his aim, and his goal in life was to shoot, stuff and display every life stage of every bird native to Britain. In his older years he began to grow increasingly erratic, to the point where he would fire his shotgun at the passing postmen. Not a fellow to be trifled with.

Edward Booth lived on Dyke Road in Brighton up until his death in 1890, and it is here that he founded his museum in 1874, though initially not for the public viewing. ‘The Booth Museum’ is in fact a bit of a misnomer; included amongst the exhibits are the collections of Alderman Griffith, Dr Herbert Langston, J Gordon Dalgliesh and Major Blackiston, all added to the museum in the years between Booth’s death and the 1930s. A name that referenced all of these would, however, be a struggle to fit on the sign. Thanks to this selection of collections the museum covers a surprisingly wide array of subjects, housing an extensive insect collection, a varied skeletal selection and a geology section, all nestled within the spacious main hall. The museum also has an emphasis on interactivity, possessing an area where you can touch and feel some of the exhibits. There and elsewhere one can explore the links between ancient items and their modern day equivalents, and there is an area aimed at engaging a younger audience.

Killer Whale skeleton
Killer Whale skeleton, by Leslie Chatfield. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The modern acquisition of display specimens can be a tricky lawful and moral issue for museums. This means that the majority of stuffed animals hail from a rather simpler time where if you killed it before it killed you, almost anything was fair game. The inevitable outcome for these now antiquated animals is that they tend to become slightly worn and scruffy, sadly evident even the displays of the Natural History Museum in London. The animals in the Booth Museum remain in excellent condition, however, and the number, quantity and quality of the specimens is astonishing, all the more surprising considering the free entry. Some stand out in particular; the magnificent Golden Eagles near the entrance hall, the questionable curio of the toad in the stone and the eerie skeleton of a Killer Whale that stands guard over the skeleton hall.

The ‘Toad in the Hole’
The ‘Toad in the Hole’. Author's own work.

What marked Booth out as a collector and displayer of nature was his use of dioramas, the display of specimens within detailed sculpted environments that attempt to convey the world they inhabit. It is hard not to be impressed by the stacked dioramas that form the walls of museum, displaying from the smallest Robin to the noblest Golden Eagle. Almost all of these are perched within an approximation of their surroundings, finished with intricate details – the bodies of recently caught prey, verdant vegetation and fake bird poo. Arguably, these may only represent a snapshot of what the curators believed the birds’ habitats were like. However, they certainly serve to contextualise the birds, creating a plausible impression of life rather than simply being presented in a stark, bare environment, stripped of meaning.

It is important in the modern study of the history of science to remember that specimens in museums do not simply materialise themselves, named and annotated. Walking through the main hall of Booth’s museum, overlooked by the multitude of dioramas that line the walls, I can’t help but feel that Booth was just as fascinating a specimen as those that he collected. Placed amongst the specimens of the museum are some of the artefacts of Booth himself, including an assortment of the guns he used on his specimen hunts. Where Booth sought context in his displays, in this museum you can feel a sense of the zeitgeist, and the social world Booth inhabited. There is a section in centre of the museum that recreates the sense of a typical room in the Booth household, resplendent in aged oak furniture, a leopard skin by the fire and gloriously faded red leather backed chairs.

Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment
Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment. Author's own work.

The Booth Museum is funded by the Brighton Council, and thus is free to enter (though to leave a donation would no doubt be appreciated). The museum is a 20 minute walk away from Brighton and Hove station, or you can hop on one of the many buses that head in that direction. If you are in Brighton for any reason – and there are plenty of reasons to be there – then a visit for anyone with an interest in history and nature, or the simply curious and inquisitive, is very worthwhile.

Further information



Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (ed.), The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (University of Virginia Press, 2011)