Revealing Doctor Who - Museums Association

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Revealing Doctor Who

Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of GlasgowThe Hunterian has made a small budget go a long way in a refurbishment that sheds light on the museum's founder, says Stuart Burch
Stuart Burch
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Dr Who? That's the question currently bothering Glasgow's Hunterian Museum. The answer is Dr William Hunter: collector, anatomist, author, researcher, Academician, superstar.

These descriptions of Hunter appear above seven display cases each containing one of the many artefacts that he bequeathed to Glasgow University on his death in 1783. A museum was eventually built to house these items in 1807. Now, exactly 200 years later, it has been revamped.

Before the refurbishment, awareness of the man behind the collection was poor, even among the staff and students of University of Glasgow where Hunter studied. He went on to become one of the 18th century's leading physicians, supervising the delivery of six royal children. His main claim to fame can be summed up by one particularly striking object: the specimen of a uterus with a five-month-old foetus still inside. Hunter discovered that the woman's womb was pointing backwards - with fatal consequences for mother and baby. His anatomical research helped saved countless women from a similar fate.

Staff at the Hunterian thought long and hard about whether to include this potentially disturbing object in the new display. They decided to because of its importance to Hunter's career. The display features Hunter's portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds hanging nearby. This link between art and science is perfect given that Hunter became the Royal Academy of Arts' (RA) first professor of anatomy in 1768. He went on to assemble a wonderful collection of paintings, prints, drawings, coins, books and curiosities. The latter included Smugglerius, a superb life-size plaster cast of a flayed man (on loan from the RA). This and many other works are on show until December in an exhibition called My Highest Pleasures: William Hunter's Art Collection at the Hunterian Art Gallery, which is housed in another building on the university campus.

The displays at the art gallery and the museum are intended to present Hunter 'in his historical context'. This means that all visitors - even the smallest - should be well equipped to answer the question: 'Dr Who?' This question appears above a section aimed especially at young visitors. The vitrines are positioned close to the floor and colourful, easy-to-read speech bubbles pick out some remarkable specimens - a favourite being a puffed-up and very prickly porcupine fish.

This fish appears in one of two cases that act like arms embracing the first thing the visitor sees: the skeleton of a young Indian elephant. On either side are carefully selected objects under the title Weird and Wonderful. This is intended to whet the appetite of visitors and stimulate more questions than answers. The number of objects is kept low here, encouraging the visitor to linger over each thing. This is in contrast to the cases on either side that are packed full of stuff.

Varying the type of display in this way sustains the attention of a non-specialist while not excluding the academic expert: it is both educational and entertaining. This means that it stays true to Hunter's first museum and anatomy school, described in 1789 as a 'repository… for the instruction and wonder of the present, as well as of future ages'.

Part of this repository is today housed in George Gilbert Scott's monumental Victorian gothic building at the heart of the University of Glasgow. The objects are clustered around a central spine running down one of the main halls. The display tells the story of collectors who, like Hunter, bequeathed items to the museum. On either side are themed sections looking at topics such as archaeology, vertebrate evolution and the Mediterranean world.

The fact that one can talk of the arms and spine of the display is indicative of the theatricality of the hang. This is entirely in keeping with the nature of William Hunter, who was famous for his brilliant anatomy lectures. When he tried to retire from teaching his students petitioned him to stay.

Another excellent theatrical touch is the monitor in front of the Indian elephant. It plays a sequence of time-lapse photographs showing welders putting together the plinth on which the elephant stands. This is followed by curators adding the elephant bones: a simple idea, but it brings the collection to life. It reminds us that the museum is a dynamic, changing place, not just a heap of forgotten objects left to gather dust in glass cases.

The life of the museum is also covered by the touchscreen interactives. When it opened in 1807, it was the very first public institution to feature a gallery of paintings (predating Dulwich Picture Gallery by eight years). We also learn that it cost the equivalent of £6 to enter. Today it's free. But other things have not changed all that much. The basement of the original museum featured a Hall of the Elephant.

By focusing on William Hunter in this anniversary year the museum has made the most of its rich and fascinating past. And it very cleverly uses this to suggest that it could have an even more exciting future.

The section on the museum's extensive collection of Roman sculpture, for example, looks forward to 2008 and Unesco's possible designation of the Antonine Wall as part of the Frontiers of the Roman World Heritage Site. The museum plans to convert the university's visitor shop into an interpretation centre telling how this defensive structure was built in 142-144 AD, just to the north of the more famous Hadrian's Wall.

More ambitious still are the hopes of the former Hunterian director, Evelyn Silber. In her postscript to a book published to mark the bicentenary she dreams of a day when the Hunterian collections are brought together under one roof to create an institution capable of rivalling Glasgow's Burrell Collection.

This latest redisplay has been realised in-house and at a cost of £750,000, which is doubly remarkable given that the Hunterian has faced a seemingly endless series of funding crises. The latest round of cutbacks led Silber to resign as director in 2006 - Ewen Smith is the current director. Despite this change of leadership and a reduction in resources, the Hunterian has still managed to deliver a coherent redisplay on time and at a comparatively low cost. The management of Glasgow University ought to repay this superb resourcefulness and resilience by safeguarding its future. It might start by fixing the roofs of the current museum and art gallery - both of which were hit by leaks on the day that I visited.

Stuart Burch is a lecturer in museum studies at Nottingham Trent University

Project data

Cost: £750,000 (entire museum); Main funders: Wellcome Trust, Heritage Lottery Fund, University of Glasgow Trust, Scottish Museums Council, University of Glasgow Chancellor's Fund, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery; Exhibition design: in-house (Stephen Perry); Lighting design: in-house (Dave Russ)

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