Art and science in alliance

by Caroline Cornish

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Ranee Prakash reveals the flower models in the
Bernard Sunley Special Collections Room
at the Natural History Museum

Ranee Prakash, Curator of Seed Plants at the Natural History Museum, brought this amazing object to my attention recently.  It’s not currently on display at the moment, as it doesn’t really fit into the Museum’s current display strategies but is kept with the reference collections.  As a former keeper of botany at the Museum, John Cannon put it: ‘The models are of no scientific significance, but they are superb examples of miniature craftsmanship’.  But Dr. Mark Spencer, Senior Curator in the British and Irish Herbarium at the Museum, has a particular interest in material of this sort, and is keen to promote its historical and cultural value.

These 32 models of potted plants, housed in a wooden and glass case, were crafted in metal alloy in the 1920s by Beatrice Hindley of Chiswick, London.   They are set in plaster of Paris painted to resemble soil.  They were once on display in the Exhibition Gallery at the Museum before it sustained major bomb damage during the Second World War.

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Some of the models in close-up; water-lily (Nymphaeaceae) on the left, carnations (Dianthus sp.) on the right, approximately 5cm high.

Hindley was well-known as a maker of miniature flowers during her life-time.  One customer was Queen Mary who commissioned Hindley to design the garden for the famous dolls’ house originally exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley 1924-25, and now on display at Windsor Castle.  As she lived close to Kew Gardens, Hindley would study the plants there to ensure that every detail of her models was accurate.

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The Daily Chronicle
24 March 1927

What bigger pictures does all this help to illuminate?  How women made their mark on the scientific landscape in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for one.  And it’s a very interesting example of where art and science meet in the museum.  These are boundary objects – ‘those scientific objects which both inhabit several intersecting social worlds … and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them’.[1]  Nineteenth-century museums were among the first to appropriate display techniques from a variety of spheres, including domestic, pedagogic, craft, and fine-art, to communicate scientific messages and to interest a broad constituency.  But what particularly strikes me about them is their undeniable appeal, the appeal of the miniature, and to some extent, the appeal of past and picturesque display modes.  One of the NHM’s most popular displays, after the animatronic dinosaurs of course, is the 19th century hummingbird case in the birds gallery which is always surrounded by visitors. 

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Hundreds of hummingbirds fill a Victorian display cabinet at the NHM. By permission of the trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Such displays tell us as much about historical aesthetics as they do about former attitudes to collecting and displaying the world.  Museums which have retained some sense of those aesthetics and attitudes – such as the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford – are of renewed interest to twenty-first century museum visitors, as museums of museums.  At a recent seminar hosted by the London Group of Historical Geographers, Nick Thomas of Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology presented details of Pacific Presences – a 5 year project funded by the European Research Council which involves a consortium of European ethnographic museums.  One of the project’s aims is to ‘analyse and compare [European] collecting histories and ask how and why these enterprises resulted in distinctive collections and museums’.  A second is to ‘propose new, powerfully historicised approaches to presentations of Oceanic art, and world cultures generally, appropriate to the European museums of the twenty-first century’.  Let’s hope that the findings of the first of these can be incorporated into the practices of the second, such that past contexts and modes of display and collecting are not lost to future audiences.

Caroline Cornish is an AHRC Cultural Engagement Research Fellow in Royal Holloway’s Social and Cultural Geography research group and is currently conducting research at the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on the theme of ‘Re-enchanting economic botany’.


[1] Star, S. L. & Griesemer, J. R. 1989 ‘Institutional Ecology, “Translations” and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39’ Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387-42

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