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Letters on British and American Museums
(S402 & S405: 1887)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A pair of public letters addressed to hurt feelings. Printed, respectively, in the 6 October 1887 issue of Nature and the 1 November 1887 issue of Fortnightly Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S402405.htm

S402: The British Museum and American Museums.

     [[p. 530]] I very much regret to learn that my friend Prof. Flower thinks I have done great injustice to the British Museum of Natural History in my article on "American Museums," which has appeared in the September number of the Fortnightly Review. The article was sent to England last February, and I had no opportunity of correcting the proofs, as some very bad misprints will sufficiently indicate. Nothing was farther from my mind than to make any reflections on the management or arrangement of the Museum by [[p. 531]] Prof. Flower and the able heads of departments, for all of whom I have the greatest respect; and I am further convinced that much credit is due to them for doing the very utmost that is possible under the circumstances of the case. My strictures on the Museum were intended to apply solely and exclusively to the fundamental principle underlying its arrangement, which principle is embodied in the new building as in the old one. I contrasted strongly the principle of moderate-sized rooms as compared with large galleries,--the principle of exhibiting, to the public, on the one hand, strictly limited typical collections; on the other, almost complete series of species,--the principle of making a geographical arrangement the main feature of a museum, as compared with that in which almost no provision at all is made for such an arrangement.

     I had always understood that for this fundamental system of arrangement neither the present Director nor the heads of departments of the Museum were in any way responsible, and that in criticising it frankly I should not be considered to reflect on them. So clear was I in my own mind that I was discussing this general system only, that I used some expressions which I now see, with much regret, were capable of being misunderstood. After referring to some of the improvements in the New British Museum, I say, "but the great bulk of the collection still consists of old specimens exhibited in the old way in an interminable series of overcrowded wall-cases, while all attempt at any effective presentation of the various aspects and problems of natural history as now understood is as far off as ever." To the latter part of this sentence, Prof. Flower objects, as not recognizing the many improvements recently made and still making; but I intended it to apply, as I think the whole context of my article shows, to the system and the building, which themselves, from the point of view I have taken throughout the article, render any attempt at an "effective" presentation of these aspects and problems impossible. Again, at the end of my article I speak of Prof. Agassiz having said that he intended his museum "to illustrate the history of creation as far as the present state of scientific knowledge reveals that history," and then go on: "It is surely an anomaly that the naturalist who was most opposed to the theory of evolution should be the first to arrange his museum in such a way as best to illustrate that theory, while in the land of Darwin no step has been taken to escape from the monotonous routine of one great systematic series of crowded specimens arranged in lofty halls and palatial galleries, which may excite wonder, but which are calculated to teach no definite lesson." Here I was referring to the fact that the new Museum at South Kensington was constructed and arranged substantially on the same lines as the old one at Bloomsbury, and regretting that the only effective step towards inaugurating a new system of arrangement was not then taken. Prof. Flower, I find, thinks that I imply that no steps are being taken now to render the Museum more instructive and generally interesting. This was very far from my meaning, and I am exceedingly sorry that such an interpretation of my words should have been possible. I visited the Museum several times last summer before leaving for America, and I noted many improvements that were being introduced in all departments; but I could not fail to see that the main principle of the arrangement, both of the building itself and of the collections in it, had not been changed, and it was to this that all my criticisms were directed.

Godalming, September 22.
Alfred R. Wallace

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S405: Note on American Museums and the British Museum

[[p. 740]] To the Editor of the Fortnightly Review.

     Sir,--I regret to learn that my article on "American Museums," which appeared in the September issue of the Fortnightly Review, has been supposed to reflect unfairly on the Director and heads of departments of the British Museum of Natural History. I therefore beg leave to add a few words of explanation. Every reference that I made to the British Museum was intended to apply exclusively to the fundamental principles which have always governed its arrangement, and which is embodied in the new building at South Kensington as distinctly as in the old one at Bloomsbury. I contrasted, as strongly as I could, the principle of numerous moderate-sized rooms as compared with that of a few extensive galleries--the principle of exhibiting to the public carefully chosen and strictly limited typical collections only as opposed to that of making public exhibition of enormous series of closely-allied species--the principle of making a geographical arrangement a main feature of the Museum as compared with that in which almost no provision at all is made for such an arrangement. The former set of principles, which are carried out at the Museum of comparative Zoology at Harvard University, I hold to be greatly superior in every way, and I regretted that on the erection of a new building at South Kensington provision was not made for carrying out some such arrangement. Believing it to be generally known that the present Director and heads of departments are not responsible for the system, but have to make the best of it under considerable difficulties, I did not think it necessary to say explicitly that my remarks had no application to them, I therefore now wish to state my belief that they have already made considerable improvement in the methods of arrangement and illustration, and will, have no doubt, succeed in rendering the Museum as interesting to the public and useful to naturalists as it can be made under the existing system.

Alfred R. Wallace.

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