Tag Archives: museum

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, England

By Jana Funke

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) is situated in a magnificent Victorian building on Queen Street in the very heart of Exeter. It holds a collection of approximately 1.5 million objects of local, national and international significance and has a lot to offer to any visitor with an interest in natural history, archaeology, art and world cultures.

Exeter’s owes the existence of RAMM to the initiative of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (1818-1887), a Devon MP and one of the Secretaries for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Shortly after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Northcote started to appeal for funds to finance a memorial museum in Exeter. The new building was designed by architect John Hayward (1807-1891) and constructed over a thirty-year period. When it first opened, RAMM comprised a museum and art gallery, a school of science and art as well as a free public library. Since then, the library has moved into its own building, the school of art is now Plymouth University’s Faculty of Art & Education and the school of science is part of the University of Exeter.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Today, RAMM offers a lively programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Many of these feature displays from the natural history collection – one of the largest in the country, covering much of the animal kingdom. Among the most cherished objects is Gerald, the famous bull Maasai giraffe. Before coming to Exeter in 1919, Gerald belonged to the Peel Collection, which was displayed in the private Museum of Natural History and Anthropology in Oxford. It was founded by Charles Victor Alexander Peel (1869-1931), an enthusiastic big game hunter with a passion for natural history. When Peel moved to Devon later in his life, he brought with him his vast collection of taxidermic specimens – including Gerald.

The botany collection comprises thousands of plant specimens. Many of these came to Exeter thanks to horticultural firm Veitch & Sons. Sir Harry James Veitch (1840-1924), who founded the company, grew up in Exeter and is now most famous for promoting the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of 1912, the first Chelsea Flower Show. In addition to his significant art collection, which was donated to RAMM in 1924, RAMM’s plant collection owes much to Veitch. In the nineteenth century, employees of his company would travel the world in search for new plant specimens, which then found their way into the RAMM herbarium. The latter is organised using the Linnaeus’ binomial system, named after Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707-1778). Specimens from the herbarium are not generally incorporated in public displays, but special viewings can be arranged with the museum.

From 2001 to 2011, RAMM is undergoing major redevelopment. The museum’s main building on Queen Street, Exeter, Devon, EX4 3RX, will reopen in December 2011. For more information on the museum’s collections, history and redevelopment, go to http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/.


Royal Albert Memorial Museum Website. http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/. (May 2011).

William Denny & Brothers Test Tank, Dumbarton, Scotland

By Don Leggett

Few buildings along the famous River Clyde region of Scotland figure as importantly to the history of shipbuilding, naval science and the British maritime empire than the small and innocuous brick structure that holds the Denny test tank: the world’s first commercial tank (or model basin).

The Denny tank, opened in 1884, was only the second of its kind, built on specifications provided by William Froude, an Oxford-trained mathematician and one-time collaborator with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Froude designed the first private test tank to provide the British Admiralty with an accurate guide to how full-sized ships would perform at sea.

Well into even the twentieth century, shipbuilders continued to rely on the untrained eye, craft practice and a series of fairly arbitrary calculations to work out the optimum hull shape for ships of all varieties. Froude posited, and then demonstrated, that twelve-foot long model hulls propelled by railway carriage in a water tank 300 meters long would more accurately represent the behaviour of the same said design at sea.

The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton
The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton

The British shipbuilding industry was largely unconvinced of the benefits to be derived from Froude’s work, but he did find an influential supporter in the shipbuilder William Denny (whose firm built such ships as the King Edward, the first commercial vessel driven by Charles Parsons steam turbines). In a competitive business community where shipbuilders bid for contracts, accurately estimating ship speed and performance could provide a significant advantage.

William Denny (1847-1887) led his firm through a series of major shipbuilding reforms based on the use of experiments and rigorous sea trials to develop a working knowledge of efficient hull shapes. He instigated the practice of progressive trials to examine the relationship between engine power, speed and hull resistance in different ships; in the mid-1870s he began to closely work with Froude on the analysis of hull resistance; and in 1884 he finished work overseeing the construction of the test tank. He would later write of his firm’s approach to shipbuilding:

A quick and all-round approximation of any new proposal is the only platform from which a professional man can safely start; and it, again, can only be the outcome of years of laborious investigation, and observation, and experiment. The bulk of our brother-ship-builders, and I suspect pretty nearly all your men, don’t yet understand the meaning of this.

Today model testing remains a key part of shipbuilding practice, complimenting computer modelling. The machinery on display at the Dumbarton test tank (now part of the Scottish Maritime Museum) covers a wide chronology, but the museum displays have been presented as ‘Victorian’, complete with mannequin invisible technicians undertaking detailed study of ship curves and test tank measurements – while also moonlighting as night guards to the tank archives stored within the displays.

'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians
'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians

Dumbarton is a little over ten miles west of Glasgow. The frequent train service is recommended as it passes alongside the River Clyde, the birthplace of much of Britain’s former maritime empire.

For further details on visiting the tank visit the Scottish Maritime Museum website see http://scottishmaritimemuseum.org/dumbarton.html.

Museum at Azienda Agricola PoggioantinorA, Gaiole in Chianti, Siena

By Thad Parsons

Open daily, Summer (Mon-Thu: 9am-6pm, Fri: 9am-5pm, Sat-Sun & Holidays: 10am-1pm) or Winter (Mon-Fri: Same, Sat-Sun & Holidays: By Reservation Only).  Tours can be arranged by appointment.  Phone +39 (0)577739440.

The Museum at Poggio Antinora is an interesting window into 19th and early 20th century rural Italian life.  It was created by the wife of the farm’s current owner, Laura, who is an art historian and museologist.  Focusing on the (extremely*) local community and the machines used to produce wine and olive oil, the small museum provides a great window into a part of the Italian past that has been forgotten.  While the museum only covers a couple of rooms, it is an interesting diversion from the real reason that one would visit here.

Poggio Antinora perches on the very top of a lovely hillside in the heart of the Chianti district near Gaiole-in-Chianti not far from Sienna.  The farm comprises 49 hectares (20 to vineyards, 4 to olives, 8 to seed, and the remainder to woodland) with the farmhouse majestically situated on the top of the hill at over 500 m. above sea level.  The house dates to 1234 and the current owner and wine maker, Luca Brandini, represents the 30th generation of the Brandini family to occupy the house and the 29th generation to make wine and oil!

* The social aspects of the museum focus on the tiny village that you drive through on the way to the farmhouse.  The focus on the tiny community helps to reinforce the isolated life that many in Italy lived during the 19th and early 20th century.

The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Thad Parsons

Open Monday to Friday from 11:00am – 4:00pm, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments is presented in three display spaces: the main Putnam Gallery (Science Center 136), the Special Exhibitions Gallery (Science Center 251), and the Foyer Exhibition Space (Science Center 371).  The galleries are closed on University Holidays.  It is open to the public and admission is free.  Children must be supervised.  For inquiries, call 617-495-2779.  Nearest T Station is Harvard Square on the Red Line.

The collection of scientific instruments for teaching and research has been occurring at Harvard since 1672.  In 1948, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments was established to preserve the rich legacy of science and technology present at Harvard.  In 1987, it was placed under the direction of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science.  Today, it is one of the largest university collections of its kind in the world with over 20,000 objects.  Covering periods from the fifteenth century until today and a broad range of scientific disciplines, it is an important research resource for the historian of science and the collection can be accessed online at Waywiser.

The Putnam Gallery contains the Collection’s permanent display, entitled “TIME, LIFE, & MATTER: Science in Cambridge”.  The exhibition is book-ended by two large pieces – a decorative orrery and a cyclotron console – and it covers everything from early astronomy and physics to psychology and physiology (download the thematic guide for full coverage).  The interested historian can find plenty to interest themselves for hours but the casual visitor can easily experience the permanent gallery in less than an hour.

The other exhibition spaces contain regular special exhibitions, details of which can be found online.

Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

By Thad Parsons

Old Patent Office Building, Washington, DC, circa 1846

Open daily from 11:30a.m. to 7:00p.m.  Admission Free.  The closest Metrorail Station is Gallery Place – Chinatown (it is serviced by the Red, Yellow, and Green lines).

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture is actually a collection of institutions housed in the Old Patent Office building.  These institutions are the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Lunder Conservation Center, and the Luce Foundation Center for American Art.

"Soldier's sleeping bunks," 1861 Hand-colored illustration from "Harper's Weekly," June 1, 1861 (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The Old Patent Office building was praised by Walt Whitman as “the noblest of Washington buildings” and is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States.  Begun in 1836 and finished in 1868, this “Temple of Invention” was one of the first public buildings in early Washington and was designed the office and repository for the Patent Office. Built on the third major site of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s famous 1792 plan of Washington (with the first being the Capital and the second being the White House), where he envisioned a “church of the republic”, the Jacksonian Revolution built a temple for a more practical purpose.  On July 4, 1836, Congress authorized the construction of a “national museum of the arts” and “a general repository of all the inventions and improvements in machinery and manufactures, of which our country can claim the honor.”  If you were a visitor to D.C. in the 1850s, the Patent Office Building was a top attraction and inside it one would have seen a hodgepodge of inventions, marvels and curiosities.  Besides the Patent Models, it was the home to many of the collections that would later become the foundations of the Smithsonian Institute’s museums of natural science, history, and art.  Throughout its history, it has been used for a variety of functions: it was a hospital that Whitman visited to read to the injured during the Civil War, it was used for Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, and it was given to the Smithsonian in 1962.  Today, the traveler interested in the history of science and technology should proceed directly to the top floor to visit the Great Hall.

The Great Hall, Third Floor, Reynolds Center

The Great Hall, as seen today after the recent renovation of the building, was created after a fire in 1877 destroyed the third floor of the building.  It was remodeled by Adolf Cluss and and his partner, Paul Schulze.  The resulting interior space, originally called the Model Hall, is a dramatic riot of color.  Covered in encaustic tile and lit by stained glass windows, the hall celebrates great American scientists.  Four of them – Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, Thomas Jefferson, and Eli Whitney – are represented on large medallions in the corners of the Hall.   If one has entered the Model Hall from Robert Mills’ graceful double curved cantilevered stone staircases, turning right leads one down the Hall and into more of the Patent Office’s galleries.  Today they house the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, but provide the same service – a public study and storage center.  The Luce Foundation Center displays more than 3,000 objects and provides interactive kiosks for those interested in the items on display.  Additionally, for the weary traveler, free tea and coffee is provided in its small cafe.  If one continues through the Luce Foundation Center, one will find the Lunder Conservation Center – the first art conservation center that allows the public full view of conservation staff working to preserve artwork from the collections of both museums.

On the way out, I would suggest stopping on the Second Floor landing off of Mills’ stairs to see David Beck’s MVSEVM.  The model is designed to show the ‘inside story’ of the building and its history, and contains hundreds of model objects representing the range of materials displayed in the buildings at one time.  This intricate sculptural piece is a fascinating interpretation of building’s history into a physical form and is one of the few pieces of artwork I recommended to those interested in the history of science at these two museums.

Kogod Courtyard (Image Courtest of the Smithsonian Institute)

Finally, for those whose interest extends to modern architecture, a stroll through the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard is a must; Conde Nast named it one of the seven architectural wonders of the world.  Covered by an elegant glass canopy designed by Sir Norman Foster (note the striking similarity to the British Museum’s new roof), it is a relaxing place to rest one’s museum-weary feet.

Museo Universitario del Chopo (Chopo University Museum), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Museo Universitario del Chopo

During the twentieth century world’s fairs were a great success in the major European and American cities, but smaller cities prepared local fairs, and one example of them was the Art and Textile Industry Exhibition held in Düsseldorf, Germany.

For this event, the German metallurgical company Gutehoffnungshütte (Good Hope Mine) located in Oberhausen, built the building parts to assemble, under design of Bruno Möhring.

At the end of 1902 concluded the fair and Mexican Company of Permanent Exhibition bought three of their four exhibition halls. The building was dismantled and shipped to Mexico. Was assembled in the north of the city, in Santa María la Ribera neighborhood, near railway stations, because it was an attractive place for middle class families, it was near the center and had all the services.

Between 1903 and 1905 the so-called Cabaña de la Buena Esperanza (Good Hope Cottage) was assembled in the area of Chopo Street (common name for Populus nigra, tall tree of African origin, found in Europe and Asia), in Santa María la Ribera. Nowadays, street change its name to Enrique González Martínez Street.

In 1909, Public Instruction and Fine Arts Ministry rented the Chopo building to mount there a Natural History Museum. But before was used to install a Japanese industrial art exhibition that was part of the Centenary celebrations of Independence.

Museo Universitario del Chopo at night

On December 1st, 1913 opened the Natural History Museum. The former National Museum of Mexico welcomed anthropological, ethnological, paleontological, and zoological collections. The collection was divided: the anthropological and ethnological collections remained in the original headquarters and the natural sciences formed the new Natural History Museum. By 1922, the Museum was the best in Mexico and received 1,200 visitors daily, which called him familiarly, Museo del Chopo (Chopo Museum).

By the mid-sixties the deterioration of the building and the decline of the heritage caused closure of the Museum. The collections went to the Museum of Natural History in Chapultepec, the Museum of Geology and institutes, schools and faculties of UNAM.

The rescue work of the building began in 1973. After nearly two years of work, Chopo University Museum was ready as a space dedicated to cultural diffusion, particularly young and experimental art.

On November 25, 1975, UNAM Chancellor, Guillermo Soberón opened the Museum. Since its opening, it was a dynamic advocate of contemporary art, characterized by its focus on innovation, inclusive and pluralistic character, and his work is positioned as an essential reference of the Avant Garde.

In 2006 and 2007 renewed its building to better serve the needs of contemporary art, through intervention of renewed architects and engineers and implemented by the Coordination of Special Projects of UNAM.

Museo de Geología (Geology Museum), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Exterior of the Geology Museum

In one of the most traditional neighbourhoods in the north of Mexico City, Santa María la Ribera, is located a notorious place in the history of science in Mexico, Museo de Geología.

As part of urban changes proposed for the city, new neighborhoods were built on mid-nineteenth century, being one of the first Santa María la Ribera on 1861, but it was during president Porfirio Díaz period, between 1885 and 1915, when the city suffered numerous changes, most of them remained until our days.

By the end of the century, Government created an institution dedicated to scientific research, popularization and teaching of Geology in order to know about exploitable natural resources in the country; on 1886, Antonio del Castillo took the initiative to create a National Geological Commission. On September 17th, 1888, the National Congress decreed the creation of the National Geological Institute, dependant of Secretaría de Fomento, Colonización e Industria (Promotion, Colonization and Industry Ministry).

Skeleton in the Geology Museum

First research on the area were of scientific speculation that obeyed to the preparation work that it had to take effect in order to apply new knowledge in the development of mining and oil industries, usage of non metallic minerals, in addition to the use of shallow waters in the coasts and underground currents for agricultural activities. As a result of that, the first publications were Geological Sketch of Mexico, Systematic and Geographical Catalogue of Mineralogical Species of Mexico, and Bibliographic, Geology and Mining Collection, besides studies on vulcanology and paleontology.

After created the Institute a new building can house its personal were planned, and on July 17th, 1890, construction began on Fifth Street of Cypress 2728 (nowadays, Jaime Torres Bodet Street 176), under direction of Carlos Herrera López and José Guadalupe Aguilera Serrano. On June 1st, 1904, investigation began with the foundation of the Mexican Geological Society, and finally on September 6th, 1906, the building was inaugurated officially, in the occasion of the Tenth International Geological Congress. On 1917, the organism passes to be dependant of Secretaría de Trabajo, Industria y Comercio (Industry, Commerce and Work Ministry) changing its name to “Geological Studies and Explorations Department”.

On November 16th, 1929, the institution happened to be part of the recently erected National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), under a new name, Instituto de Geología (Geological Institute), same until today. In the year of 1956, administrative personal and researchers were transferred to new facilities in Ciudad Universitaria (University City), and Santa Maria la Ribera building remained exclusively like Geology Museum.

Interior Stairs, Geology Museum

Museum has three semicircular arches, a staircase imported from Germany, and a dome decorated with colorful crystals. It is a loyal representation of the variety that defines the Mexican mineral diversity. One of its areas is dedicated to mineralogy, and the other is dedicated to paleontology. All of its exhibitions are complemented with a library that has material from ancient centuries, and pictorial work created by José María Velasco, who painted a representation of the evolution of life.

Further information

A Collection of photos of the Museo de Geología on Flickr.

Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (Ancient College of San Ildefonso), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (1)

The Ancient College of San Ildefonso was one of the largest educational institutions in the capital of New Spain. Its foundation by the Jesuits dates from 1588, as a seminary where students resided in the Congregation. Around 1618 began operating under the Royal Patronage granted by Philip III, establishing the Oldest Royal College of San Ildefonso.

In the early Eighteenth century it was rebuilt, leading to the building we know today and is considered one of the most remarkable examples of civil architecture in Mexico City.

Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (2)

After the expulsion of the Jesuits decreed by King Charles III in 1767, the building had several functions: the headquarters of a battalion of the regiment of Flanders, school administered by the colonial government and led by the secular clergy, the temporary headquarters of the Law School, a few chairs in the School of Medicine and the headquarters of U.S. and French troops in 1847 and 1862 respectively.

The history of the Jesuit Foundation concluded to make way for the institution of liberal spirit that would lay the foundations of the new educational system which would later become the core of the National University. In 1867, Benito Juárez’s government started a reform in the field of education and its institutions. The Organic Law of Education created the National Preparatory School, which was established in the building of the Colegio de San Ildefonso. Its first director was Dr. Gabino Barreda (1818-1881), who conducted an innovative curriculum based on the principles of the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte.

Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (3)

In 1910, the National Preparatory School became part of the National University founded by Justo Sierra. For more than six decades remained the cradle of several generations of intellectuals and eminent personalities. 1978 was the last year it hosted the National Preparatory School. The building remained closed to the public until 1992, when it was renovated to house the exhibition “Mexico: Splendors of 30 centuries”.

Currently is a museum and cultural center considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement. The complex is located between San Ildefonso Street and Justo Sierra Street in the historic center of Mexico City.

Palacio de Minería (Palace of Mines), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Colegio de Minería (College of Mining) building on Tacuba street in the Centro of Mexico City

Close to one of the most representative buildings related to arts and culture in Mexico, Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Arts), an architectonic jewel of marble and French style, it is one of the more distinctive places in the history of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, in Spanish), Palacio de Minería.

It can be considered a masterpiece of Latin-American neoclassicism, situated at the end of Tacuba Street, and in front on the plaza named Manuel Tolsá (a Valencian sculptor and architect in charge of construction of the Palace), better known as “El Caballito” (“The Little Horse”), because an equestrian statue of Spanish king Charles IV. Palacio de Minería was built to house the Royal Seminar of Mines (also known as the Mining Tribunal) in order to give academic instruction to miners since 1813, after 16 years of construction.

The Palace is usually described like a majestic monument of elegant forms and exact proportions where light, space and functionality merge, and because of this, it is one of the most outstanding constructions in Mexico City, and also it is part of artistic and cultural patrimony of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which, at present time, is under the custody of the School of Engineering.

Inside the Palace, we can find beautiful and marvellous venues like the Ancient Chapel, the Ceremonies’ Hall, the Dean’s Hall, the Principal’s Hall, and the Library, all of them great examples of mural paintings kept as the Manuel Tolsá Museum that houses academies and objects related to his duties as well as masterpieces of some other artists from his time.

In 1954, the School of Engineering moved to the new Campus, Ciudad Universitaria (University City, in the south of the city), which meant a transition era for the Palace: the first year engineering courses were taught in the new Campus, while the traditional careers, such as Mining, Geology and Petroleum Engineering stayed at the Palace, and other areas like Civil, Electromechanical and Topographical Engineering were later studied at University City.

Palacio de Minería

The Palace was remodelled and restored in the next years, due a foundation and structural problems that the underground causes in Mexico City, so therefore a refurbishing of the building was carried out by the Former Students’ Society of the School of Engineering. In 1976, after the restoration, the Palace was donated to this school for the use of the school and the students.

Nowadays, this building houses the home office of the Continual and Distance Education Division (DECD), the Engineer Bruno Mascanzoni Information and Documentation Center, the Historical Archives of the Palace of Mines, the Manuel Tolsá Museum, different engineering groups as well as different administrative areas.

Every year the Palace of Mines is used as temporary home office of one of the most important world-wide known publishing events in the country: The International Book Fair.

Museum of Victorian Science, North Yorkshire

By Alan Dronsfield

I can guarantee that virtually no readers of this article will have heard of this museum, located somewhat out of the way in the village of Glaisdale, near Whitby, North Yorkshire. It’s not a museum in the conventional sense – you can’t simply turn up, pay your admission fee and wander round. Instead you have to book in advance (£20 if you turn up as an individual, or £10 a head for groups of 2-5). In return you get a two-hour lecture demonstration of aspects of radioactivity, electrical discharges and the work of William Crookes, and (briefly) Thomson’s work that led him to “discover” the electron. I claim these as chemical discoveries, but physics colleagues might disagree. We also see demonstrations of various electrical machines including those like Priestley might have used in his experiments. These were improved during the 19th century culminating in the famous Wimshurst Machine (1880) capable of generating sparks several inches in length.

The museum’s website is at http://www.museumofvictorianscience.co.uk and bookings should be made by telephone: 01947 897440. I went as one of a party of four like-minded scientists. The talk was tailor-made to our mainly chemical interests, and as they say, a good time was had by all!

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.