This week I also visited the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, which, for all you London people, was founded by the other Hunter. The Hunterian at the Royal College of Surgeons in London was founded on the collections of the eminent 18th century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, and the one in Glasgow his elder brother William, also an eminent surgeon and obstetrician, and one of his little brother’s teachers.
I have a deep and abiding affection for the Hunterian and its collections, having worked there last year and seen all of the wonderful things they have squirrelled away in storage. Which, until recently, included most of their Scottish Roman material. Everyone knows about Hadrian’s Wall, which was built to keep the Scots at bay because they were too much trouble, but fewer people know about the later attempt by Antoninus Pius to conquer those pesky barbarians which led to the buidling of another wall, which ran from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth and passed through the north of Glasgow, neatly providing the University of Glasgow with the finest collection of Roman material to be found in Scotland. This includes columns, gravestones, altars, coins, leatherwork, tools, weapons, pottery, jewellery, and a number of distance markers (carved stone plaques made to commemorate the completion of building a certain length of wall by a group of soldiers). Of course, the Scottish tribes proved too much of a challenge even for Antoninus Pius, and his wall was only manned for about 20 years before the Romans once more retreated south of the border, but they left some fascinating archaeology behind.
All of this you will learn about in far greater detail when you go and visit the exibition, entitled The Antonine Wall: Rome’s Final Frontier. The many pieces of stonework look amazing in their new space, and the small finds have all been arranged nicely into groups illustrating different themes. The exhibition is small, because the space available is not huge (the Hunterian is a far more petite museum than the NMS!), but it has been used very well and to great artistic effect.
The only slight niggle is that some of the stones have been placed quite high where children may not be able to see them easily, and that some of the text panels are small (and coloured grey, which doesn’t always make for easy reading). But the exhibit has only very recently opened (within the last couple of weeks), and there are obviously some final touches still to be made. It is a beautiful and creative use of this wonderful historic building, and I am very excited to see these jewels of the museum’s collections on permanent display at last.
And of course, there is still the rest of the museum to see as well! The Hunterian benefits from an incredibly varied collection (William Hunter was quite the collector!), and it holds archaeology, ethnography, numismatic, natural history, anatomical, geological, palaeontological, and scientific collections (as well as art, housed in a gallery across the street). Displaying all of these very different things in a smallish space could give any exhibition designer a headache, but in the Hunterian they are all blended into a beautiful and coherent whole.
The older exhibits have also changed a little since I was last there (the whole museum was closed for several months while a new roof was fitted, and this has been used as an opportunity to reshuffle and redisplay a few areas), but they look just as splendid as ever. The Hunterian is one of the oldest museums in the UK (indeed, it claims to be the oldest public museum in Scotland, having opened its doors in 1807), and its collections are displayed in a way that is modern but also sympathetic to the antiquity of both the collections and the grand building in which they are housed. It’s a little gem tucked away inside the main Glasgow University building, and there are further gems to be found in the adjacent art gallery (including lots of Mackintosh and Whistler materials and works), and the zoology department (Graeme Kerr building), which houses its own small museum.
Well, that’s enough from me for one day. Which other museums (preferably within the London area for ease of access) do you think I should visit? I welcome any and all recommendations. I’m always looking for new and interesting things to see of a weekend.