HC Deb 29 March 1824 vol 10 cc1466-76

The House resolved itself into a committee of supply. On the resolution, "That 4,847l.be granted for the service of the British Museum for the year 1824,"

Mr. Grey Bennet

begged to call the attention of the House to the distressing account of the state of the various subjects of natural history in the British Museum, contained in an article of the Edinburgh Review, for May 1823. He was sorry to say, that he understood the observations in that article were strictly just. Generally speaking, the statements of the publication in question were very correct; but, so great a clamour had been raised by the remarks to which he had adverted, that he had been induced to inquire into their foundation, and had been informed that they were grounded in fact. By that article it appeared, with reference to the immense collections of sir Hans Sloane, in which the Museum might be said to have had its origin, that those collections were nearly all gone. The birds and beasts, which formed so large a part of these collections, had nearly disappeared. Of nearly 2,000 specimens of mammalia, all had been annihilated. It was the same with the insects. Of above five thousand of the latter, all in a state of the best preservation, not above three or four hundred remained. Of an immense and valuable herbarium, occupying 334 volumes, but fifty or sixty were now visible, and those were covered with dust and penetrated by worms; threatening the whole with destruction. The various gifts of distinguished travellers to the British Museum were all sharing a similar fate. The trustees declared, that they wanted room. Why, then, did they not come to parliament sooner, and make that statement? Economy was a very good thing in the abstract; but an economy that led to the waste and destruction of valuable property was an extremely pernicious economy. How differently were the museums of France, of Holland, of Germany conducted! Were the House aware of the care bestowed on the subjects of natural history, in Paris for instance? When a rare quadruped was there brought under: notice, it was first examined anatomically before it was stuffed for preservation; by which means an excellent knowledge of comparative anatomy was diffused; and the animal was afterwards carefully preserved; while here neither the one nor the other object was achieved. There was another story told in the publication to which he had referred, of a most extraordinary nature, and well deserving the attention of the House. It was well known, that sir Joseph Banks had given to the British Museum in his life-time a very valuable collection of birds, the packages containing which were deposited in the vaults of the institution, and appeared to be forgotten. When the college of Surgeons commenced furnishing their museum, they were anxious to obtain some objects of natural history, and applied to the British Museum for that purpose. The cases containing sir Joseph Banks's collection were consequently sent to them. As, however, the College of Surgeons afterwards thought it prudent to confine their collection to subjects of human and comparative anatomy, they exchanged these cases with a well-known collector, Mr. Bullock, for some skeletons and other articles better suited to their purpose. The error was discovered when too late; and when Mr. Bullock's collection was subsequently broken up, the trustees of the British Museum gave orders for the purchase, at a considerable expense, of a small part of what had been presented to it by one of the most munificent patrons of natural history this country ever produced. He repeated, that he had every reason to believe that these statements were correct. Such was the public opinion: and, if unfounded, it ought to be set right. It appeared to him, that nothing was more necessary, to prevent the recurrence of such mismanagement, than an entire change in the system of making trustees. He objected to making trustees ex-officio—trustees of straw—trustees merely for the sake of their names. The lord chan- cellor was a trustee, and had never been in the museum, he understood, but once; and then only because some matter of form compelled him to go. Now, such trustees were quite useless. Men of activity were wanted. It was really disgraceful to the country, to see the state of our British Museum, when compared with the condition of similar institutions on the continent. The utter carelessness exhibited towards all properties intrusted to its care, had had the effect of benefitting private collections, where gentlemen knew their specimens would be attended to, and properly put before the public. He repeated that the want of room was not an admissible excuse. More might have been done with the space, narrow as it was; for some of the properties might have been placed in the apartments occupied by the officers of the establishment. At all events, if room was necessary, room ought at once to be provided; for it would be better not to attempt any national collection at all, than to support such an institution as assumed the name of a museum, without possessing any of the distinctive properties of one.

Sir C. Long

expressed his surprise, that the hon. gentleman should place such implicit faith in an article published in the Edinburgh Review by an anonymous writer. He was sorry the hon. gentleman had not made more accurate inquiries on the subject, before he repeated that writer's statement in that House. If he had done so, he would have found that, for some of the assertions in the article in question, there was not the slightest foundation; and that others were most grossly exaggerated. And first, with respect to that part of the museum which was derived from sir Hans Sloane. The hon. gentleman stated, that of sir Hans Sloane's large collections, few articles were left. This was certainly the case. But it ought to be recollected, that the most valuable portion of those collections was the insects. Now sir Hans Sloane died in 1752. It was probable, therefore, that above a century had elapsed since the preparation of most of them. But, there were in the museum above 70,000 articles in entomology, comprehending among them duplicates of all that had been in sir Hans Sloane's collection. [Mr. Bennet asked, across the table, where these specimens where?] Where? In the British Museum. Not exposed to public view certainly. He was aware that that was one of the complaints in the Edinburgh Review. But, did not the hon. gentleman know that in every museum only a few of the entomological specimens were publicly exposed, because the colours of many descriptions of moths, butterflies, &c. faded when constantly exposed to "the light? In the present day there were also great improvements in the preparation of insects, as compared with sir Hans Sloane's time. The hon. gentleman also talked of a valuable collection of mammalia, as having been derived from sir Hans Sloane. The Edinburgh Review stated the number at 1,886. It was no such thing. There were only 1,886 parts of animals; some the teeth, others the hair, &c. Yet they were described in the Edinburgh Review as so many animals belonging to sir Hans Sloane—a tolerable proof of the accuracy of the reviewer. The hon. member's next charge related to some most valuable quadrupeds, the gift of Mr. Burchill, the African Traveller. [Mr. Bennett denied, across the table, having made such a charge.] It was in the Edinburgh Review, however, and he would notice it before he sat down. The next object, then, to which the hon. gentleman had adverted was sir Joseph Banks's collection. He thought he could give a complete answer to the hon. gentleman's statement on that subject. Not a single step had been taken with respect to this collection (which was supposed by the hon. gentleman to have totally disappeared) except under the direction of sir Joseph Banks himself. He (sir C. L.) as one of the trustees, certainly looked up to sir Joseph Banks as the individual who could best direct the mode of depositing the collection he had presented to the museum; and his directions on the subject had been strictly obeyed. With regard to the subsequent proceedings, the account in the Edinburgh Review was entirely incorrect. The Review stated, that the packages containing sir Joseph Banks's collection, one of the most beautiful that ever came to England, filled a large waggon when sent to the British Museum; that when the college of surgeons commenced furnishing their museum, they obtained an order from the trustees of the British Museum, for such objects of natural history as could be spared from the latter collection; that in consequence, sir Joseph Banks's cases were sent to the College; that it was afterwards deemed prudent by the college to confine their collections to subjects of human and comparative anatomy; that a well-known collector, having in his possession many skeletons and other articles suited to the I purposes of the College, agreed to exchange them for specimens more adapted to his already magnificent collection; that the cases containing sir Joseph Banks's collection, which had remained unopened at Surgeons' Hall, were en masse consigned to him, in exchange for his anatomical preparations; that he found these cases, admirably secured and pitched over, to contain the greatest varieties, in the most perfect preservation; that thus a private individual became fairly possessed of the largest collection of uncommon and splendid birds which was ever at one time imported into Britain; that the mistake was discovered when too late; that the trustees of the British Museum, anxious to repair as much as possible the unlucky accident, authorised Dr. Leach to purchase up those very articles at the subsequent dispersion of the collection alluded to; that the concourse of distinguished foreign naturalists, whom the fame of the intended sale attracted to England, made some of the birds fetch most exorbitant prices; and that near 400l. were expended by Dr. Leach in restoring to the National Museum perhaps but a small part of what it had lost. He (sir C. Long) had made an inquiry into the truth of these allegations, and he found that they were substantially erroneous. His information had been derived from Mr. Henry Ellis, the secretary to the British Museum, a man universally respected, and one of the most active, useful, and meritorious officers that any establishment could possess. From him he found, that the collection in question had never been brought to the Museum in cases pitched over;" that the articles sent to the College of Surgeons were a mammoth's head, and five or six cases of birds; and that the re-purchase was effected by the Museum at an expense of 37l.10s.,instead of 400l.as asserted in the Review. Upon calling on Mr. Bullock, he had confirmed that part of Mr. Ellis's statement of which he had cognizance. The spirit in which the account in the Review was written, manifested itself in the fact that, after all the allegations were made, they were followed by a paragraph, admitting that those allegations were not consistent with the individual knowledge of the writer—The hon. gentleman was severe, both on the trustees, and on the officers of the institution. With regard to the officers, without saying that there were not as scientific men to be found elsewhere; he would say, that no where could be found individuals more valuable to a public institution, or who discharged their duty in a more satisfactory manner. One gentleman was particularly reflected upon in the Edinburgh Review—namely, Mr. Children. With the conduct of Mr. Children, however, the trustees were highly satisfied; and all who knew the gentleness of that individual's manners, and the liveliness of his attention to the subjects entrusted to his care, must feel that some undue motive must have prompted so unjust an attack upon him. It seldom happened that an unsuccessful candidate for a post entertained any very strong predilection for his more fortunate rival; and that remark might, perhaps, explain the cause of the treatment which Mr. Children had experienced. The Review, in speaking of the accommodation in the Museum, recommended, that some of the specimens of natural history should be placed in the rooms now occupied by the officers of the institution. Now, although it would not be impracticable or inconvenient, perhaps, to place a few of the books belonging to the Museum in those rooms, it would be rather too much to introduce into them a bear, or a rhinoceros. The hon. gentleman also objected to the trustees and the mode of their election. All he would say was, that he was sure, if the hon. member had an opportunity of observing the fact, he would find that the trustees, who were appointed to attend every week, diligently discharged their duty. There were four quarterly meetings of the trustees. At these meetings every officer of the establishment stated the manner in which he had employed his time since the last meeting. He made a report of every thing which related to his department. From those reports frequently arose the appointment of Subcommittees of the trustees to inquire into particular points. There was besides a general committee; and lately six smaller committees of trustees had been appointed, who were to report annually on the state of the various departments which they were required respectively to superintend. On the whole, it did not appear to him to be possible that the institution could be better regulated.—He would now say a few words respecting Mr. Burchill's gifts, as well as of those of other celebrated travellers. In the Edinburgh Review it was stated, that those gifts were totally neglected. He would read to the House a report made by a committee of trustees appointed in 1820, to investigate this matter. In the first place, he begged to observe, that it would have been idle to go to the expense of preparing the animals in question, if afterwards there could be found no room for their exhibition. The report of the committee was to the following effect; namely, That the committee appointed to inspect the Zoological Collections in the Museum, regret that a great portion of the quadrupeds which the liberality of Mr. Burchill, and others, has induced them to present to the Museum, have remained so long unexhibited; and they further regret that in the present deficiency of room, they cannot recommend that any steps should speedily be taken respecting them. With regard to the various specimens of birds presented to the Museum by the Hudson's Bay Company, by capt. Ross, capt. Parry, &c. as they are small, and as the public are at present deeply interested in all that relates to the northern seas, they recommend that orders should be given for their preparation. The committee recommend the adoption of such further measures respecting the zoological collections of the Museum as may be the means of accumulating all the subjects of natural history which can be furnished by every part of the globe; but to carry such measures into effect will require the erection of a building of considerable dimensions. Unless such a building should be erected, they, on the contrary, recommend the trustees to decline any future presents, except such as may be kept in a small space." The hon. gentleman had said, that if the trustees came down to that House, there would be no difficulty in granting any sum that might be applied for. Now, although he felt as much as any man the liberality of that House; yet if, three years hence, the trustees were to come down to that House, and ask for a large sum of money for a building for a public exhibition, he had no doubt but that they would see the hon. member for Aberdeen exhibiting one of his most terrific economical aspects; and he was not quite sure, that many of the country gentlemen whom he saw around him would not support a motion by the hen. member for the rejection of that vote. The right hon. member concluded by saying, that if he were to go inch by inch into the statement of the Review, he should be able to shew that that statement had very little foundation.

Mr. Bankes

said, that all the charges contained in the pamphlet, if examined, would be found, if not altogether false, at least greatly exaggerated. He would read to the House an extract from that publication, in order to shew the degree of credit which was due to the writer. The hon. member then proceeded to read the following extract from the Edinburgh Review;—"To much practical knowledge of zoology, he should unite great zeal for the science, and an intensity of application for years to come, before the national collection can be rendered respectable. In its present state, it is an object of disgust and lamentation to native naturalists, and of ridicule and contempt to foreigners. We have heard hints of a permanent provision for an extra librarian being the cause of the removal of Mr. Children from the antiquarian to the zoological department; but we are unwilling to credit this." The House could not be at a loss to understand the meaning of the writer; he referred to other candidates, and evidently spoke in the language of disappointment.

Mr. G. Bankes

defended the conduct of Mr. Salt, a gentleman who was entitled to the best thanks of the country for the extent of his useful labours.

Mr. Hume

said, that, of 43 trustees, 21 were efficient, comprising the ministers of state now, it was not to be supposed, that those efficient persons, who had so many duties to attend to, gave any of their time to the consideration of the affairs of the British Museum. There were, then, eight members, who represented the Sloane, the Cotton, Harleian, Townley, and Elgin families. To those he did not object; but he did object to this, that there was not one roan of science to be found in the number of those trustees. If individuals were placed over that establishment who would preside over committees, and attend its general interests, he had no doubt but the affairs of the institution would be Ouch better conducted.

Mr. Croker

thought that the library was pretty well managed, but complained loudly of the state of the catalogue. The value of a public library must depend, in a great degree, upon the catalogue, and the chief usefulness of it was, to poor scholars, who certainly could not afford eight or nine guineas, the price at which the catalogue must be now purchased. He thought it would be a most desirable point of inquiry, for the trustees to ascertain if there could not be a cheaper edition of the catalogue issued for the use of the country at large. If the expense were too great to be repaid by the sale of copies, no doubt parliament would cheerfully grant a small sum in aid of it, perhaps to the amount of 1001.a year. He thought the present buildings were well adapted to the purposes of the library, and the scientific collections; but he objected to fixing the national gallery there Works of art were especially calculated to civilize and humanize the public at large, and ought to be placed, as it were, in the gang-way of society, to be not only open, but of ready and inviting access to the public. But chiefly he insisted on the necessity of reforming the catalogue of the library, and putting it out in a cheaper and closer shape. It mattered little for such a work how coarse the paper or how poor the printing: the general usefulness of it was alone the consideration.

Mr. W. Smith

approved of the institution generally, and thought the objections to the catalogue not very sound. The library was for reference more than for study, and poor scholars, as well as others, might look in the catalogue when there, without going to the expense of purchasing one.

Mr. Croker

said, that was certainly true; but, if the poor scholar could furnish himself with a catalogue at a low rate, he would not have to waste his valuable time by going to the Museum to discover that the book which he sought for was not to be found there.

Mr. Bankes

thought, that none of the objections, either to the institution or the management of it, were well founded. As to the inconvenience and difficulty of admission, that could hardly be alleged, seeing, that in the course of last year, it had been visited by 100,000 persons. As to the want of room, it was true that they had not enough for all the subjects which were presented, and had been obliged to build for the reception of the king's library. But, if gentlemen would only consider that these collections, after the completion of the new buildings, would cover a space rather larger than Han- over Square, they would scarcely persist in the objection with seriousness. For the catalogue of the library, he did not know how it could be better managed than at present, because of the continual accessions to the library, which of course required continual enlargements of the catalogue—a circumstance utterly at variance with the plan of a cheap catalogue.

Mr. G. Bennet

expressed a hope that no niggardly principle would prevent the trustees from coming to parliament to ask for two or three hundred pounds, if necessary, in order to procure scientific persons to preside over the different departments. Sir Joseph Banks and sir Humphrey Davy had been named as specimens of the talent with which the different departments were filled; but of those gentlemen one was dead, and the other was far from being an instance of the general talent with which those situations ought to be filled.

Mr. R. Smith

hoped it would be generally understood, that nothing which had occurred that evening ought to induce the trustees to consider themselves precluded from coming to parliament for any further sum which they might consider necessary.

Sir C. Long

was quite disposed to concur in the hope expressed by his hon. friend. With respect to what had been observed, as to the sum paid to Mr. Salt for the sarcophagus, he could only state, that Mr. Bingham Richards, the agent of that gentleman, had been asked, whether he would be satisfied with 2,000l. as a remuneration, and he had replied in the affirmative. The trustees who were disposing of the public money would hardly, therefore, have been justified—he was sure they would not have escaped censure—if they bad offered 500l., or any other sum, beyond that which was expected by Mr. Salt. He thought the public was much indebted to Mr. Salt, and he had no doubt, as well from the result of his inquiries among persons who were acquainted with the value of such things, as from his own opinion, that the articles furnished by Mr. Salt were worth much more than he had been paid. He even believed they had cost that gentleman more. With the election of the trustees he had nothing to do, but, as a body, he felt himself obliged to say, he had never met with any set of men more anxious to discharge their duty to the public. They consisted of a great variety of persons, and among them were individuals of the highest rank and talent in the country. When it was remembered, that there was every reason to expect that the institution would be benefitted materially by the bounty of some and the exertions of all of them, he did not say too much when he asserted, that it would be hardly possible to find any men who could be more safely or advantageously placed in the stations they occupied. This he said in mere justice to gentlemen, whose services had been very useful to the public, and for which he was sorry to say they had had but little credit.

Mr. H. Gurney

said a few words, which were inaudible, and to which.

Sir C. Long

replied, that he wished by no means to be understood to say, that the trustees would not very willingly, under the authority of the House, revise their decision as to Mr. Salt's remuneration.

The resolution was agreed to.