The main aim of the early Fellows of the Royal Society was to enquire after ‘matters of fact’. They used a variety of methods to pursue facts, one of which was collecting man-made and natural artefacts.
The first historian of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat, wrote in 1667 that the Royal Society intended to make ‘a General Collection of all the Effects of Arts, and the Common, or Monstrous Works of Nature’. Indeed, he claimed, they had already made a good start on this project: ‘they have already drawn together into one Room, the greatest part of all the several kinds of things, that are scatter’d throughout the Universe’. This was a bold claim for a collection kept in the Society’s modest quarters at Gresham College in the middle of London, but it reflected the early Fellows’ ambitions and their belief that anything was possible with the help of a large group of like-minded individuals. They called their collection the ‘Repository’, and Robert Hooke, as their paid Curator, was nominally in charge of keeping the Repository in order.
All sorts of people contributed all sorts of things to the Repository. John Wilkins produced ‘the skin of a monstrous lamb … having seven legs, two bodies, two tails, and only one head’. One Mr May sent in ‘the skin of an antilope, which had died in St. James’s Park’. And Mr Henry Howard presented ‘an excellent mummy’. In 1666, with the help of a donation from their Treasurer Daniel Colwall, the Society bought a large collection of ‘natural rarities’ which had been on public display in London near St Paul’s. This rather random assembly of curiosities included a ‘Gyants Thighbone 4 foot long’, but the Fellows were probably more interested in items such as armadillos, crocodiles, chameleons, humming-birds and tropical shells. One of the reasons for having this kind of collection was to allow comparisons to be made between specimens, in a first attempt towards a universal classification system. In some ways the natural world was like a giant jigsaw-puzzle, and the Fellows thought that if they collected enough pieces they would be able to put together an accurate picture of how things related to other things.
Various attempts at a catalogue were made, but it was not until the late 1670s that the current Secretary, Nehemiah Grew, began to make progress. The book was finally printed in 1681 with the title Musaeum Regalis Societatis; or a Catalogue & Description of the Natural and Artificial Rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham College. Grew stated his intentions in his preface – unlike previous catalogues of Renaissance noblemen’s ‘cabinets of curiosities’, his descriptions would not emphasise exotic and monstrous specimens, and would avoid repeating spurious information culled from earlier writers. The catalogue would be written on philosophical principles, with the aim of re-creating the collection in print for those unable to visit in person.
The entries are straightforward and matter-of-fact. Grew gives detailed measurements and descriptions of the shape and texture of artefacts, and also takes care to point out any errors in previous descriptions of the same kind of object. The hippopotamus, he says, ‘is almost every where described very falsly. Aristotle falsly gives him a Maine, like that of a Horse . . . In the Musaeum Romanum, he is described with double Hoofs like an Ox, and pictured with four or five Claws like a Bear; neither truly.’
My favourite bit is Grew’s description of the human skeleton. The Society owned two skeletons, of a male and female, and Grew described and compared them at some length. He pointed out that the jaw-bone of the male was larger: ‘a Man being fitted, in other respects, to undergo more labour; his Chaps also should be the better made to eat the more’. He also compared the two skulls, showing that the male cranium was also larger, ‘and so capable of more Brains’. But – and this I find very curious – he goes on to say: ‘Although a little House may be well furnished, and look better than a great one that stands empty.’ Well said, that man! Grew’s meaning is clear, but why he would choose to strike a blow for equality of the sexes here is unknown to me (unless his wife had been reading the draft text and demanded some kind of explanation).
The Musaeum is not as lavishly illustrated as Hooke’s Micrographia, or some of the other Royal Society-sponsored books of the period, but there are some very nice engravings of particular specimens, such as the ‘weesel headed armadillo’ (a name invented by Grew), hippopotamus (‘or behemoth’), and kidney or bladder stone. As with any printed catalogue, it combined scholarship with self-promotion – in this case on the part of the Royal Society, who had formed the collection.
Sadly the Repository is no longer with us, and we’re only able to identify a very few items from it. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century, and a German visitor to the Royal Society in 1710 rather sniffily recorded that most of the artefacts were lying neglected, broken and covered in dust. (He was all the more disappointed because he had admired Grew’s catalogue and expected great things of the collection). By this time it had become clear that the early hopes of making a complete collection of natural history were in vain, and the focus of research had moved to other areas. But perhaps the most important function of the Repository was to prompt other Fellows to assemble collections of their own – including Sir Hans Sloane, whose massive hoard of books, manuscripts, ethnographic items and natural artefacts were bought by the nation at his death and became the nucleus of the British Museum.
And the giant’s thigh-bone? Grew re-identified this in his catalogue as the ‘leg bone of an elephant’. Perhaps it’s still lying somewhere in the Natural History Museum’s storerooms today.
[This article was originally posted, under a different title, on Felicity’s blog Robert Hooke’s London http://hookeslondon.com/]