Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 7, 2000
Carla Yanni Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 224 pp.; 103 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0801863260)

In the heart of McGill University, in downtown Montreal, sits a remarkable building. Supposedly Canada’s first purpose-built natural history museum at the time of its opening in 1882, the Redpath Museum is now a particularly popular place with children because of its splendid Albertosaurus libratus, among other dinosaur remains. Our four-year old son, in fact, calls it the “Dino Museum.” Many McGill students, unfortunately, have never been inside. Perhaps this is because the rich collections of the Redpath Museum are difficult to discern from the building’s exterior, which has always seemed to me to be a sort of Greek-temple-meets-Crystal-Palace.

I once required architecture students to do measured drawings of the Redpath Museum, and they revolted. What possible relevance could a museum full of old specimens have for today’s young architects?

Carla Yanni’s Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science & the Architecture of Display offers valuable lessons in how to decode the rather elusive architectural language of buildings like the Redpath Museum, as well as its relevance to the present. What was the relationship of Victorian architecture and science? How is architecture implicated in our construction of knowledge?

Originally her 1994 dissertation in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, Yanni’s book is essentially comprised of case studies of three well-known British institutions: the Oxford University Museum, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, and the Natural History Museum in London. Chapters dealing with each of these buildings are preceded by a general introduction to the evolution of the building type and another on several buildings of the 1830s and 1840s, which, although neglected by historians, acted as models in one way or another, especially for Oxford’s museum. Following the three case studies is a look at natural history museums today, a conclusion on the role of architecture in the social construction of knowledge, and a brief epilogue on two contemporary “arks” in California.

Although the book deals almost exclusively with museums, Yanni’s tome shares much with other typological studies, mostly written by architectural historians. A list of the most notable American examples would include Abigail Van Slyck’s study of Carnegie libraries, Free for All (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Elizabeth Cromley’s book on New York apartment buildings, Alone Together (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990). Book-length studies of British building types would include Stefan Muthesius’s, The English Terraced House (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), Deborah Weiner’s study of London’s Board Schools, Architecture and Social Reform in Late-Victorian London (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), and Jeremy Taylor’s The Architect and the Pavilion Hospital (London/New York: Leicester University Press, 1997). What these superb studies underline, like Yanni’s book, is the value of groups of buildings in illuminating social and political debates which are inarticulated in other sources, and are more difficult, if not impossible, to discern when focusing on a single building or an architect’s career.

The main argument of Nature’s Museums is that museum architecture played an important role in the Victorian discourse on science. Although the buildings, in the most general terms, look alike, Yanni illustrates how natural history, religion, and even industry had completely different meanings in various local settings. Each museum, that is, functioned as a sort of barometer of scientific discourse in a particular time and place.

Deane and Woodword’s Oxford University Museum, which is almost always explained by architectural historians as simply an illustration of Ruskinian Gothic, is to Yanni a textbook for instruction on the natural world. At the same time, it legitimated natural theology, suggesting that nature was a depiction of creation.

The Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, on the other hand, was an homage to Scottish industry. The idea here was that displays about “economic geology” would illustrate how nature could be profitable. Architect Francis Fowke’s references to the Crystal Palace in his design of the Edinburgh structure underlined this notion that nature was intended for the good of humans (and their pocketbooks).

Finally, Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum in London, according to Yanni, was an expression of antiquated, pre-Darwinian science by the time it opened in 1881. This chapter is a gripping tale of an all-powerful museum superintendent (Richard Owen), a blind competition (won by Fowke), an existing, much-detested building (Fowke’s 1862 Exhibition Building), and a sudden change of architect. Through its encyclopedic aims, its division of the natural world into living and extinct species, and its religious ornamentation, the final building was hardly a statement on cutting-edge science.

Yanni’s contention that these three natural history museums comprised a complex architectural dialogue, each absorbing and in some cases reacting against the other, is captivating. And in this way, Nature’s Museums resembles Taylor’s above-mentioned study of pavilion-plan hospitals. Both Yanni and Taylor consider architecture in its many guises built form, unrealized design projects, and architectural criticism. And through this approach they both succeed in illustrating how Victorian architecture was a dynamic, multifaceted discourse, rather than simply a series of overly decorated buildings.

Unlike many architecture books written by art historians, Nature’s Museums includes a plethora of plans, allowing Yanni to masterfully walk readers through the spaces of the buildings. The book also includes photos taken by the author, evidence of the importance of fieldwork (in addition to more traditional archival research) to the project.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is how, with something of a postmodern sensibility, Yanni points out how the act of “looking” was crucial to the development of the natural history museum. Elaborate glass roof structures were at least as much about helping visitors scrutinize objects, as they were displays of architectural virtuosity. At the same time, her book forces us to “look” at the museum in a completely new way. And the text is also full of fascinating anecdotes—just like the collections of specimens she explores—such as her discussion of the “dinomania” which has gripped children since the 1950s, and her suggestion that the reconstructed Crystal Palace in Sydenham (burned 1937) was actually more important than its more famous progenitor in Hyde Park.

The strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses. Some less effective aspects of Nature’s Museums are the use of subtitles, the literature review, and the concluding sections. Although subtitles may encourage the use of the book in courses, allowing students to scan the text quickly, they disrupt the flow of Yanni’s velvety prose; readers may sense, as I did, that each case study could have been book-length. The literature review, impressive as it is in its breadth of sources, still smacks of a dissertation. And finally, the glimpse of two contemporary arks—so named to recall the first natural history museum, Noah’s Ark—disconnected to the subject of the book both geographically and temporally, seems tacked on.

Nonetheless, Yanni has enriched immensely our understanding of these buildings, and all architecture designed for display. The Redpath Museum’s classical ornamentation, its iron structure, and the all-important dinos make perfect sense to me now. And I am even more convinced of its relevance for young architects.

Annmarie Adams
School of Architecture, McGill University