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Museum records of the Geological Society of London

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 378 GSL/MUS
Held at: Geological Society of London
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Full title: Museum records of the Geological Society of London
Date(s): 1808-1911
Level of description: Series
Extent: 10 volumes and 22 files
Name of creator(s): Museum of the Geological Society of London | [1808]-1911


Administrative/Biographical history:

From its earliest days, the Geological Society collected specimens. Unlike rival collections at the British Museum and other learned bodies, the Society's Museum was intended to be comprehensive. Access was restricted to members of the Society but it was to be of use to both beginners and accomplished geologists. The rudimentary Museum was first laid out in 1809, when the Society moved to its first premises at 4 Garden Court, Temple. However even after the move to a larger house in Lincoln's Inn Fields a year later there was still not enough space to adequately store the specimens.

By 1810 the Museum was in disarray, with new specimens piling up and the existing collection still not catalogued fully. At the first meeting of Council, 14 June 1810, it was resolved that Leonard Horner, Wilson Lowry, Comte de Bournon and Peter Mark Roget would form a 'Committee of Arrangement' to take charge of the collection. In 1812 it was decided to appoint the Society's first paid member of staff, Thomas Webster who had been a Member of the Society since 1809, as (part-time) Keeper of the Museum. Webster's role was not curatorial, instead he was charged with unpacking and registering the specimens which would then be catalogued by the Committee of Arrangement. Webster was overwhelmed with the workload as he also had to fit in his additional duties of honorary secretary, librarian, journal editor as well as keeping an eye on the accounts.

Originally the specimens in the Museum were arranged by country - the British specimens being then subdivided by county. From 1813 the collection began to be arranged stratigraphically, echoing the fossil theories of William Smith. However not all members of the Society agreed with the new layout, and Webster was caught between opposing scientific factions who continually criticised his work. His unpopularity amongst a number of senior Fellows of the Society such as George Bellas Greenough and Charles Lyell when added to the scandal of a clerk absconding with 63 from the sales of the 'Transactions' in 1827, meant that when the remodelled post of 'Curator' was created that year, Webster was not offered it. Webster left on 1 July 1827, later referring to the Society's officers as 'a bad lot'.

Instead the first Curator in 1829 was William Lonsdale. Like Webster, Lonsdale also acted as assistant secretary, editor, librarian and finance officer but at least was employed full time. Lonsdale's appointment was viewed by all as a great success, however he was relieved of his curatorial duties in 1836 when his health broke down from overwork. Between 1839 and 1848 there followed five Curators but this high turnover of staff meant that much of the work was either unfocused or unfinished. In order to try and sort out the ongoing problems in the Museum, various ad hoc Special Museum Committees were formed. Leonard Horner, under the aegis of one of these Special Committees finally managed to get the Museum under some sort of control by the mid 1860s but this happy state of affairs was short lived.

By 1869, it was decided to abandon attempts to form a comprehensive collection. Instead specimens should directly relate to papers read at the Society, resulting in a virtual halt in donations of any kind. The move to Burlington House gave the impetus to thoroughly weed and catalogue the collection again, but after Bernard B Woodward who had overseen the relocation resigned in 1876, the collection received only cursory attention.

In 1895, the Council accepted that a large portion of the collection should be donated to the British Museum but the decision was indefinitely postponed after a special general meeting the following year. However another special general meeting was called by a group of palaeontologists in 1901 to try and force the Council to take better care of the Museum, but their plan backfired and instead a motion was carried that the Museum should be disposed of. This caused a flurry of interest in the Museum, with a threefold increase in visitors and loan requests. John Frederick Blake even produced a catalogue of the whole Museum, published at his own expense as 'List of the Types and Figured the Collection of the Geological Society of London', London (1902).

Finally, after another two special general meetings held on 25 January and 14 June 1911, it was resolved that the Museum should be disposed of and the space used by the Library. The contents were divided between the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum) and the Museum of Practical Geology (part of the British Geological Survey). The British Museum received the foreign specimens, while the domestic collection was given to the other institution. A number of specimens were retained by the Society but only a few remain, notably the ichthyosaur skull found by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis (now in the entrance lobby of the Society's Apartments) and a Pleistocene rhinocerus skull given by William Buckland in 1820 (on the second floor). The Museum space became the Upper Library, but some of the supports for the specimen drawers can still be seen on a number of its shelves.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Museum of the Geological Society of London, 1808-1911, comprising:

Letters, lists and notes relating to the contents of the Geological Society's Museum, 1808-1897; Annotated mineralogy and palaeontology publications for use in the Museum, 1837-1855; Museum visitors' register, 1899-1911; Records relating to the disposal of the Museum collections, 1896-1911.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Much of the Museum related material was scattered around different series. Apart from the reports of the standing Museum Committee (ref: GSL/COM/MUS) and the papers of the Special Museum Committees (ref: GSL/SP), the rest of the material has been amalgamated in this series for ease of use.

Conditions governing access:

Access is by appointment only, daily readership fee is applicable unless you are a member of the Society. Please contact the Archivist for further information.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copies, subject to copyright and the condition of the original, may be supplied. Requests to publish original material should be submitted to the Archivist.

Finding aids:

Detailed catalogue will be available online in the near future.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Allied Materials

Related material:

For reports of the standing Museum Committee, see: GSL/COM/MUS; for Special Museum Committees, 1845-1911, and the joint Library and Museum Committee, 1868-1911, see: GSL/COM/SP/3 and GSL/COM/SP/6.

The physical specimens from the Museum are now held by the British Geological Survey and the Natural History Museum. When the Museum was removed in 1911, much of the records relating to it such as the catalogues and registers of the specimens were given away also. These can be found in the Archives of the Natural History Museum, ref: NHMP Mss Geo.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Source: Moore, D T and J C Thackray et al. "A short history of the Museum of the Geological Society of London, 1807-1911...". Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), vol 19, pp 51-160. Description by Caroline Lam

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
March 2012

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