The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Albert C Barnes (1874-1951), chemist and art collector

Albert C Barnes (1874-1951), chemist and art collector. Image available in the public domain.

The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 by Albert C Barnes (1872-1951), an eccentric chemist whose successful development of an anti-venereal disease drug made him a fortune. With this he acquired ethnographic art and paintings, particularly of the French impressionist and post-impressionist schools, and early modern art. He had a purpose-built gallery constructed, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, and it included highly original decoration including cubist bas-reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz. In this he displayed the ethnography alongside the fine art, understanding well how African artefacts had influenced many of the artists whose work he collected. His remarkably rich collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes (‘The Card Players’ is particularly well-known), 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, etc.

Barnes was constantly at war with the Philadelphia establishment whom he despised and his gallery had been deliberately constructed in an unfashionable suburb of the city, Merion, away from the centre. Control was in the hands of Lincoln University, an establishment for black students. In the 1990s, the Barnes Foundation ran into financial difficulties and, in violation of Barnes’ will, controversial plans were devised by the city to transfer the collection much closer to the centre of Philadelphia. The legal challenge against the move was ultimately unsuccessful and the collection will now move into a new, and probably largely sympathetic, building near to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and a number of other cultural institutions lined along the Ben Franklin Parkway. It will open in May 2012. The original building will remain accessible to the extent that it will retain a horticulture programme associated with Barnes’ arboretum, and will house the Foundation’s archives.

A strongly critical, polemical, film about background to the proposed move, ‘The Art of the Steal’, was made in 2009; it is well worth watching.

Address: The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA
Telephone: (001) 215-640-0171

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)

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today, by youcanlookiyup. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.

The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.

The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.

By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.

Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.

Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon’s Birds of America

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon's Birds of America, by John James Audubon (1785–1851). Image in public domain and available via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of The Birds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.

Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.

Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.

Further reading

Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, London

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum in London (founded in 1753), represents an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity. It is home to a large collection of curious objects, thanks to the Museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane (an Irish physician, natural philosopher and collector), whose bust stands proudly just inside one of the entrances of the Gallery. By the time of his death, he had collected 71,000 objects that were donated to the State and left for the public to enjoy, many of which can be found in The King’s Library.

As you walk through the permanent exhibition in the oldest room of the Museum, The King’s Library (constructed during 1823-1827, and formed by King George III), it is possible to imagine British explorers returning from far off lands with curious treasures to stimulate and titillate scientific minds. The time period it reflects is the Age of Reason (also known as the Enlightenment), a period of learning around 1680 to 1820, within which intellectuals sought to promote reason and advance knowledge in society. Philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin were just a few of the big proponents of this cultural movement. This room demonstrates how British and European collectors, antiquaries and explorers, attempted to make sense of and classify their world at this time, using objects rather than texts. This was an important change in the way scholars investigated the natural world. The reliability of the written word was questioned during this period and so the study of objects and the collection and classification of specimens, along with the use of experimentation in science, became paramount to obtaining the truth about nature.

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library, by Mujtaba Chohan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The Enlightenment Gallery boasts a variety of weird and wonderful objects to be admired, from natural to artificial rarities, from the beautiful to the bizarre. Several pointed flint hand axes, a wooden shoe, birds of paradise, fish skin gauntlets and the skull and crown of the Deal warrior, are just a few of the items that can be found amongst the thousands of objects on display. The collection also includes Sir Hans Sloane’s very own specimen tray: small compartments that contain botanical remedies ranging from a ground mummy’s finger (believed to cure bruises), a rhinoceros horn (used as an antidote for poison), and even hot chocolate (believed to help stomach problems). The King’s Library also possesses around sixty-thousand royal books. The broad spectrum of objects signifies Sloane’s and other collectors growing interest with natural philosophy in the eighteenth-century, and their growing desire to visualise and present their findings in an attempt to make knowledge about the natural world.

The Gallery is presented in seven sections, depicting the different aspects of eighteenth-century disciplines: religion and ritual, trade and discovery, the birth of archaeology, art history, classification, the decipherment of ancient scripts and natural history.

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, by Barbara Rich. Image licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

The beautiful archaic setting and architecture of the room creates a sense of time-travel: The King’s Library provides a dramatic contrast to the modern feel of the rest of the building, with its rich oak and mahogany floors and classical architectural features. Unlike modern museums there are no small, neat, tidy descriptions provided next to the objects in question, this adds to the charm and mystery of the Enlightenment Gallery. You can let your curiosity and imagination create explanations behind these wonders, which at a glance, appear to have no rhyme or reason; try to experience how collectors would have viewed objects that they had never observed before, and attempt to classify them.

Here, within the British Museum, it is possible to catch a small glimpse of the eighteenth-century scientific process of making knowledge; which involved observation and classification, elements of society that are arguably often taken for granted today. As a historian, I am wary to say that it is an absolute replica of a cabinet of curiosity, as this would be a hard challenge to achieve. However, to explore the objects that eighteenth-century contemporaries deemed worthy of study, and the way the Gallery deviates from modern expectations of a museum, creates the nearest possible experience to a cabinet of curiosity (the only other option is to create your own time machine!). As a result the Gallery has managed to capture a sense of mystery, imagination, knowledge and charm in a compact yet extra-ordinary room. Highly recommended.

Further information

Kim Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (British Museum, 2004)