National collections of objects and museum information in 19th-century Scotland

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  • Museum Management and Curatorship (1990), 9,281-285

    National Collections of Objects and Museum Information in Hth-century Scotland


    The contemporary interest in national databases of museum information, so clearly evident at the Museum Documentation Associations conference on Sharing Museum Data, held at York in September 1989, has many historical antecedents. In particular, reference is often made to the call for a national catalogue of museum holdings in Britain, made at the meeting in 1888 at which it was decided to form the Museums Association. Twelve years later, the first number of the Museums Journal referred to one of the goals of the Association as being the indexing of the general contents of museums. The purpose of the present note is to draw attention to two earlier collections of national information in Scotland: parallels doubtless exist with activities in other countries, particularly smaller ones.

    The first collection is a printed volume: Catalogue of Antiquities, Works of Art and Historical Scottish Relics Exhibited in the Museum of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland during Their Annual Meeting, Held in Edinburgh, July, 1856. The Archaeological Institute had held its first annual meeting at Canterbury in 1844, and its usual practice was to organize a Museum-a temporary exhibition-of local antiquities. At the Edinburgh meeting, the President, Lord Talbot de Malahide, announced: I am assured that, on the present occasion, owing to the liberality of private individuals and public bodies in contributing their treasures for exhibition, we have never had a more varied and interesting collection since the Institute was formed.3 It was held in the new building of the National Gallery of Scotland, from 23 to 26 July.

    Overall, the quality of the objects was very high. From the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, for example, came the Kilmichael Glassary bell shrine, and a Pictish silver chain found in 1808, during the excavation of the Caledonian Canal. Some very notable material, including Sir James Sutherlands collection of Scats coins, came from the Advocates Library, which then included many objects of national importance.4 Among other museums represented were the Arbuthnot Museum, Peterhead, the museums at Kelso, Elgin, Inverness and Montrose, and the museum of the Fifeshire Literary and Antiquarian Society at Cupar. Collectors such as Cosmo Innes, Noel Paton, David Laing, David Octavius Hill (the calotypist), and James Young Simpson (the inventor of chloroform anaesthesia) contributed items of importance. Some outstanding material came from old landed families. On the cover of the catalogue was embossed an image of the Hunterston Brooch, lent by Robert Hunter of Hunterston. Memorabilia connected with Mary, Queen of Scats, came from Earl Stanhope, the Earl of Morton, Bruce of Kennet and Sir James Maxwell of Poloc. The total number of lenders was no fewer than 158.

    0260.4779/90/03 0281-05 $03.00 0 1990 Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd

  • 282 National Collections in 19th-century Scotland

    Interior of the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, in 1890, with Joseph Anderson in the foreground and, behind him, his assistant George F. Black. Anderson was Keeper of the Museum of Antiquities for 44 years, from 1869, and the first champion of scientific

    archaeology in Scotland. (Photo: Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland)

    The Archaeological Institutes Museum of 1856 contained a substantial display of items relating to Scottish history. Given that the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland at this period emphasized prehistoric material at the expense of later objects-which were also held by the Advocates Library-the Museum was the most representative display of Scottish historical material that had been assembled. Indeed, given the extensive selection of loans from private collections, it has in some areas not been surpassed. Although it was open for only four days, the Edinburgh Museum was the first to be sufficiently large to justify the production of a catalogue, which was prepared by that admirable antiquary, Albert Way, and issued in 1859. A quart0 volume of 269 pages, the length of each entry is in accordance with the significance of the object-some cover several pages-and there are 142 illustrations, mostly wood engravings. The organization of the sections of the book is clear, and it is completed by a 9-page index. The catalogue is detailed, but nevertheless it is not easy to estimate the actual number of objects which were exhibited. What is an extensive series? Is it a larger quantity when it refers to stone implements than to coins? A probable total is between two and three thousand Scats items, plus several hundred English and two hundred Irish objects. Given the Archaeological Institutes interest in post-Roman material, the Scottish prehistoric and Roman sections contained only about 350 items.

    The second example of the national collection of data in Scotland occurred in the late 188Os, at the same time as the Museums Association was proposing its general index. It was a survey of the holdings of certain kinds of material held in local museums-museums other than the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh-performed by Joseph Anderson and George F. Black.5 Anderson is one of the great figures in the history of Scottish archaeology, Keeper of the Museum of


    Antiquities for 44 years from 1869,6 and the first champion of scientific archaeology in Scotland. Black, his assistant, was a man of considerable ability who appears to have been frustrated by the very limited opportunities in archaeology (he and Anderson held the only two professional posts in Scotland) into emigration to New York. Although Anderson is usually regarded as the author of the National Museums excellent Cutalogue of 1892, Black later gave himself credit for it.8

    This survey was made possible by a travel grant given by Dr R.H. Gunning. His representatives wrote to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on 15 June 1887, offering financial support for the examination of other collections in Scotland, and on 2 July the Acting Committee of the Society recommended that the scheme should be inaugurated in this the Jubilee year by an Inspection and Report upon the condition and contents of the Archaeological and Ethnographical departments of the Provincial Museums in Scotland. Anderson and Black were duly appointed, and the listing of 1888 covered 31 museums, with 13 examined by Anderson and 18 by Black. Its scope was Scottish archaeology and all ethnological and Far Eastern material. Other archaeological collections were described in outline, with general remarks made about natural history collections. Historical antiquities were listed but in general were not described. The order of the entries for each museum was the same as the classified order presented in the National Museums Cutalogue of 1892. For prehistory it followed the three-age system (stone, bronze, iron), and ended with historical material.

    The number of Scottish archaeological objects in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1885 was given as 38,678,9 though the number which was genuinely useful to the study of archaeology was rather less than this. lo At this time the number of small stone and flint objects from two particular areas was 33,000. Setting them aside, the remainder in the National Museum (say 6000) can be compared with the 1385 listed in the Anderson-Black survey, which comprised about one-fifth of the total number of Scottish archaeological and historical items in museums in Scotland. Anderson and Black demonstrated the pre-eminence of the National Museums collections, but also drew attention to significant material elsewhere, thus creating an additional resource for research. Since the building of the computer database for the archaeological holdings in the National Museums of Scotland it has become clear that the provenances of these holdings are biased towards the east of the country.12 Having a view of the material in local museums, which included many objects from the west of Scotland, thus provided a partial correction.

    A subsequent expedition, also funded by Gunning, was made to London where Scottish material was examined in the British Museum, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Museum of Practical Geology, the South Kensington Museum and the Tower of London.i3

    The lists prepared by Anderson and Black are particularly useful for a number of reasons. They include evaluations of the significance of objects, either explicitly (the valuable collection of Cypriote pottery at Maxwelltown), or implicitly by the deployment of inverted commas to indicate doubtful provenances (belonged to Paul

    J ones , worn by Cetewayos wife), and by the length of the entry accorded to each item. References are frequently given to periodicals and other publications, particularly if the object had been figured; and comparisons are made between objects in different collections.

    We must also ask why it was thought worthwhile to perform these surveys? Anderson saw the listing of the collections of local museums as part of the massing of evidence which was the starting-point of his archaeological method:

  • 284 National Collections in 19th-century Scotland

    The basis of every science is the plenitude of its ascertained facts derived from recorded observations . . . . Every recorded fact is an addition to the sum total of our general knowledge of the subject; and though in its isolated circumstances it may seem of little importance, yet when marshalled in its proper place among the rest of the facts accumulated, it may prove to be the missing link which makes the demonstration complete. l4

    The background to Andersons interest in the holdings of local museums is made clear in an address given in November 1888 by R. W. Cochrane-Patrick. l5 Cochrane-Patrick was a landowner and politician, and unlike the professional Anderson, he was in a position to speak his mind. He praised Ways catalogue as a good starting-point-but thirty years old. The collections in local museums he damned for being practically useless to the general student from want of published catalogues of their contents. l6 He was also concerned that museums were often set up in a rush of enthusiasm, but then suffered from a rapid decline in interest, followed by the dispersal of their holdings. Cochrane-Patricks solution was the publication of a complete collection of Scottish antiquities. As one of the Secretaries of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, he would have known of the survey by Anderson and Black: at the Anniversary Meeting on 30 November 1888, an advance copy of the Proceedings had been laid before the Society. Cochrane-Patrick appears to have been calling for a more detailed catalogue, drawing together material not only in public collections but also-since he was himself a collector-material in private hands.

    There are similarities between the two catalogues described here and a national database of objects in collections. All are as complete as is reasonable, without taking pains to locate every item that might be included. The entries in all of them vary with the importance (however importance is defined) of the objects, conflating the entries for similar objects with the same provenance. All are illustrated and contain full references to published documentation. All should be indexed: the value of the 1888 listing (and indeed the National Museums 1892 Catalogue) is lessened by the absence of an index, whilst Albert Way provided an adequate one in 1859. A database, however, has one advantage over the printed catalogue: it can be changed and improved, and can remain a source of current knowledge, as the decades pass, and turn to centuries.


    The author is grateful to his colleagues Anne OConnor and Trevor Cowie for drawing his attention to the material upon which this note is based.


    1. Museums Journal, 1, 1901-02, p. 5. 2. Archaeological Journal, 4, 1847, p. 265. 3. Annual meeting, held at Edinburgh, Archaeological Journal, 13, 1856, pp. 375-402; quoting from

    pp. 377-378. 4. I.G. Brown, This Old Magazine of Antiquities: The Advocates Library as a National Museum. In

    I. Cadell and A. Matheson, eds, For the Encouragement of Learning: Scotlands National Library 1689-1989 (National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1989).

    5. Joseph Anderson and George F. Black, Reports on local museums in Scotland, obtained through Dr R.H. Gunnings Jubilee Gift to the Society, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 22, 1887-88, pp. 331-422.


    6. R.B.K. Stevenson, The Museum, Its Beginning and Its Development. Part II: The National Museum to 1954. In A.S. Bell, ed., The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition: Essays to Mark the Bicentenary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Its Museum, 1780-1980 (John Donald, Edinburgh, 1981).

    7. Angus Graham, The Archaeology of Joseph Anderson, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 107, 1975-76, pp. 279-298.

    8. George F. Black, List of Works Relating to Scotland (New York Public Library, 1916), p. 54. 9. R.W. Cochrane-Patrick, Archaeology in Scotland: Its Past and Future, Transactions of the

    Glasgow Archaeological Society, new series, 1, 1881-90, pp. 355-375. 10. Stevenson, op. cit. note 6, p. 162. 11. Anderson and Black, op. cit. note 5, p. 421. 12. I am indebted to Dr Michael Spearman for this point. 13. George F. Black, Report on the Antiquities found in Scotland, and Preserved in the British

    Museum, &c., London, and in the Museum of Science and Art, Edinburgh, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 27, 1892-3, pp. 347-368.

    14. Joseph Anderson, The Systematic Study of Scottish Archaeology, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, new series, 1, 1881-90, pp. 343-354 quoting from pp. 353-354.

    15. Cochrane-Patrick, op. cit. note 9. For Cochrane-Patrick (1842-97), see DNB. 16. Ibid., p. 367.


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