Object Lessons

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About The Exhibition

Opening: 7th June 2003 | Where: Talbot Rice Gallery | Closing: 19th July 2003 | Curated by: Duncan Macmillan

How can you link the study of ticks, facial expression, acoustics and veterinary medicine for horses?

Through the treasures of the University of Edinburgh!

'Object Lessons Online' is a virtual edition of 'Object Lessons', an exhibition held at the Talbot Rice Gallery in 2003. Scroll through panoramas of the displays and find out more about the rich and diverse collections that the University now holds, including its books and manuscripts, great portrait collection and internationally renowned collection of early keyboard instruments, among a host of others. Click on ONLINE EXHIBITION to discover the role of collections and collecting in teaching, in research, and in the history of the University. Explore the threads of intellectual development that link objects over time.

Over 100 exhibits are featured, orientated around five major themes: From Bones to Boards: Space, Calculation and Structure; Bodies, Inside and Out; The Human Face; Sound; and Figures in the Landscape. Don't miss Robert Barker's Panorama of Edinburgh, a phial of Alexander Fleming's penicillin, the only authentic painted portrait of John Knox, Charles Darwin's class cards and the skull of George Buchanan.

How do these relate to recent developments in the scientific study of acoustics, modern medicine and genetics? Read on to find out, or simply marvel at the treasures of the University of Edinburgh.

This exhibition is a selection from the University's large collections. It is just a tiny sample from a long history of collecting. The first University museum was begun before the end of the 17th century, but this is not just a story of casual acquisition. Collecting objects and images of objects, animal, vegetable or mineral, in order to study them, has long been central to learning. And not just in the study of the past. Collecting has also played a crucial part in the advancement of knowledge in medicine and the sciences. Indeed, this has been its primary role.

There are also other motives for collecting. The University's portrait collection goes back to its foundation, representing its collective identity. The portraits too are part of a kind of study, the study of human nature. There are also many objects in the collections that are associated with individuals and their achievements. Each one tells a story, and some of these stories are told here.

The collection that became the nucleus of the University Library predates the University itself. Books can be valued as objects and there are several here that are precious witnesses to Scottish life before the Reformation. These early books are illuminated manuscripts, but illustration is of the greatest importance in later books too. It is much more than a handmaid to learning. It has been a key part of the whole study of objects and the external world on which empirical science is based.

The theme of Object Lessons is not just the history of collecting, it is also the way in which the whole approach to learning in many key areas in the history of Western thought has been shaped by the same processes of visual analysis and enquiry that have produced these collections. The exhibition also tells part of the story of the University itself, for it is especially in these areas of thought that it has played, and continues to play, a distinguished part. Visual skills have been central to this story, where art and science have often worked much more closely together than we might imagine. The themes into which the exhibition is divided have been chosen to illustrate how these continuities of thought link the past with the present and future.


 High resolution images on the LUNA imaging platform.

 Exhibition Panoramas (require QuickTime plugin)

Further info

Housing knowledge: 400 hundred years of collections

The history of the University's buildings vividly illustrates the importance its museums and collections have had as part of its identity and as an essential tool in teaching and research. In the seventeenth century the University already had a significant collection of portraits, hung in the library, and was starting to accumulate 'curiosities', a habit that has continued. Objects like George Buchanan's skull, Adam Ferguson's coffee pot, or the address to Sophia Jex-Blake from grateful women doctors, shown here with some of the earliest treasures of the library itself, add a special human quality to the whole story.

The first collections were housed in an upper hall in the library. By the middle of the eighteenth century new accommodation was needed for the museum. This was provided by raising the roof of the library. By the time Robert Adam came to draw up his plan for Old College, space for at least three separate museums is identified. In the mid-nineteenth century a large part of the collections, together with part of the site, was given to form the nucleus of what is now the Royal Museum of Scotland.

The next great building project, the Medical Buildings, had at its heart the great Anatomy Museum, a cathedral of learning that rose through three floors. A little earlier the first museum of musical instruments was fitted out in the Reid School. In the early 1930s, as the new science campus was developing at King's Buildings, the University Calendar lists no less than seventeen museums and the new Zoology and Geology buildings built at that time both included significant museums.

The story continues. In the 1970s the Torrie Collection was accommodated properly in the University for the first time and St Cecilia's Hall was fitted out to receive the Russell Collection of Keyboard Instruments. Only a few years ago, part of the Natural History collections was reinstated as the Aubrey Manning Gallery. As this exhibition demonstrates, there is now more than ever a case for a new University Museum that brings all these collections together to tell the story whose outlines are only very incompletely sketched here.

From Bones to Boards: Space, Calculation and Structure

A chair of mathematics was established in the University in 1620 on the intervention of the great mathematician John Napier of Merchiston, inventor of logarithms. Typically practical also was his invention of the ingenious calculating device known as Napier's bones, or rods, in which calculation became a visual process. In the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries James and David Gregory and Colin MacLaurin established Edinburgh mathematics firmly on the basis of the most modern thinking, and kept it turned towards the objective, practical world. MacLaurin's advice to Customs Officers about the measurement of the contents of an irregular container so that they could calculate accurately the duty on barrels of wine or brandy, or the kind of practical inquiry reflected everywhere in James Ferguson's commonplace book, are typical.

This direction of mathematical thought was also endorsed by the continuing loyalty of Edinburgh mathematicians to Euclid and so to geometry and to mathematics in visible form, rather than to abstract algebraic calculation. Perhaps this was the basis of the success of Scots as engineers. Indeed it has been argued that even James Clerk-Maxwell's advances in physics were in part shaped by this bias towards visible forms.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the extension of mathematics outwards towards astronomy or inwards towards the most elementary structures of the physical world continued to throw up striking examples of visual analysis and record. Crum Brown devised what has become the standard convention for the representation of molecular structures using his wife's knitting needles. It is fitting therefore that photographs of the two monumental figures that Eduardo Paolozzi created for the Swann Building, home of molecular biology, should be included in this section. They embody both the idea of elementary structures, but also the common ground of art and science as we see it here in the visual imagination. There is more than just superficial similarity, but real symmetry between Napier's Bones at the beginning of this story and the early computer circuit.