It’s not often that you step back and think about the process of curating an exhibition – be it a permanent collection or temporary assemblage of objects. How do museum staff decide which items, from their vaults to include and how would selecting different combinations alter the messages they transmit? This fascinating exhibition at Two Temple Place combines diverse pieces from the University of Cambridge’s eight departmental museums joining very individual objects under the banner of scientific discovery. The curators have taken items that normally exist in a different context within their ‘home’ museum and united them to tell a different story about the nature of science and the role of the university in the development of the modern world.
Naturally, then pieces are diverse – these a spectacular dodo skeleton from the museum of Zoology, a stunning Indian snakes and ladders board from the nineteenth-century normally housed in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Greek sculpture and an oil painting of Newton from the Fitzwilliam Museum, prints from Japan, and a telescope from the Polar Institute that not only travelled to the North Pole on the Discovery, but went to the South Pole with Captain Scott, before orbiting the earth in the Space Shuttle Discovery in the 80s.
This works really well and there’s no doubt that every object in this eclectic collection is well worth seeing, especially in a rare visit to London. I was quite intrigued by the almost existential idea of an exhibition about exhibitions, and it was partially successful in making me think about how acquisition, collection and display decisions are made. Although each piece is given a detailed placard, what is missing is that very explanation of why the museums donated these pieces and not any of the others in their care, and what, together, they think it means.
I would also have liked perhaps a stronger emphasis on the ‘discoveries’ theme. For example, a lot of these objects are clearly linked by the Royal Navy and its role in the mechanics of world-wide scientific exploration – many leading explorers were naval officers or helped to transport these stories back to the UK and to Cambridge museums. The Empire too has a huge role in bringing this exhibition to London, and it would have been interesting to place them in this broader context. Questions of how the navy and/or Empire affected and facilitated their discovery, transportation and interpretation within a British context, could have added an extra, more interesting dimension.
That aside, this is a great exhibition and Two Temple place is an attractive Victorian Mansion on the Embankment, open a couple of times a year to the public. The beautiful wood panelled and stained glassed rooms are a fabulous backdrop to this quirky and fascinating ramble through hundreds of years of Cambridge science. And how often do you actually get to see a genuine dodo skeleton!
Discoveries is at Two Temple Place until 27th April and is free to enter.