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Housing knowledge: 400 hundred years of collections

The history of the University's buildings vividly illustrates the importance its museums and collections have had as part of its identity and as an essential tool in teaching and research. In the seventeenth century the University already had a significant collection of portraits, hung in the library, and was starting to accumulate 'curiosities', a habit that has continued. Objects like George Buchanan's skull, Adam Ferguson's coffee pot, or the address to Sophia Jex-Blake from grateful women doctors, shown here with some of the earliest treasures of the library itself, add a special human quality to the whole story.

The first collections were housed in an upper hall in the library. By the middle of the eighteenth century new accommodation was needed for the museum. This was provided by raising the roof of the library. By the time Robert Adam came to draw up his plan for Old College, space for at least three separate museums is identified. In the mid-nineteenth century a large part of the collections, together with part of the site, was given to form the nucleus of what is now the Royal Museum of Scotland.

The next great building project, the Medical Buildings, had at its heart the great Anatomy Museum, a cathedral of learning that rose through three floors. A little earlier the first museum of musical instruments was fitted out in the Reid School. In the early 1930s, as the new science campus was developing at King's Buildings, the University Calendar lists no less than seventeen museums and the new Zoology and Geology buildings built at that time both included significant museums.

The story continues. In the 1970s the Torrie Collection was accommodated properly in the University for the first time and St Cecilia's Hall was fitted out to receive the Russell Collection of Keyboard Instruments. Only a few years ago, part of the Natural History collections was reinstated as the Aubrey Manning Gallery. As this exhibition demonstrates, there is now more than ever a case for a new University Museum that brings all these collections together to tell the story whose outlines are only very incompletely sketched here.

From Bones to Boards: Space, Calculation and Structure

A chair of mathematics was established in the University in 1620 on the intervention of the great mathematician John Napier of Merchiston, inventor of logarithms. Typically practical also was his invention of the ingenious calculating device known as Napier's bones, or rods, in which calculation became a visual process. In the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries James and David Gregory and Colin MacLaurin established Edinburgh mathematics firmly on the basis of the most modern thinking, and kept it turned towards the objective, practical world. MacLaurin's advice to Customs Officers about the measurement of the contents of an irregular container so that they could calculate accurately the duty on barrels of wine or brandy, or the kind of practical inquiry reflected everywhere in James Ferguson's commonplace book, are typical.

This direction of mathematical thought was also endorsed by the continuing loyalty of Edinburgh mathematicians to Euclid and so to geometry and to mathematics in visible form, rather than to abstract algebraic calculation. Perhaps this was the basis of the success of Scots as engineers. Indeed it has been argued that even James Clerk-Maxwell's advances in physics were in part shaped by this bias towards visible forms.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the extension of mathematics outwards towards astronomy or inwards towards the most elementary structures of the physical world continued to throw up striking examples of visual analysis and record. Crum Brown devised what has become the standard convention for the representation of molecular structures using his wife's knitting needles. It is fitting therefore that photographs of the two monumental figures that Eduardo Paolozzi created for the Swann Building, home of molecular biology, should be included in this section. They embody both the idea of elementary structures, but also the common ground of art and science as we see it here in the visual imagination. There is more than just superficial similarity, but real symmetry between Napier's Bones at the beginning of this story and the early computer circuit.


Talbot Rice Gallery websiteScottish Arts Council website
last updated 14.07.08