Tucked away on the campus of the University of Glasgow, the Hunterian Museum is a burgeoning star in the 21st-century museum movement to embrace diversity, equity, inclusion, and community. Under the direction of Zandra Yeaman, the Curator of Discomfort, a talented team of community curators has begun to reshape the older institution by acknowledging its past and its collection with new labels contextualizing the acquisition of the materials as part of the British Empire’s colonialism, imperialism and racism. One such element is the statue of James Watt, whose ties to the Atlantic Slave trade are explained in an accompanying label.
Moving into the reception area, visitors encounter an array of objects representing the materials Hunter accumulated in his lifetime: ancient and exotic coins, weapons from across the globe, plant and animal specimens collected from the British Empire, and medical oddities. Although created in 2007, museum standards already date the exhibit, which has been refreshed by new labels asking critical questions about the acquisition of the objects on display. Through this interrogation, visitors are provided an understanding of how museums have been the repositories, if not shrines, to the global conquest and acquisition of other cultures.
Leaving the reception area, visitors enter the main gallery, a two-story room with cathedral-like ceilings explicitly built for the collection when the University of Glasgow moved from eastern Glasgow to its location in western Glasgow on Gillmore Hill in the period 1866-1870. Entering the space, greeted by the new vision and mission of the museum to disrupt and discomfort the visitor and the museum field through video and text that explains the intentionality of this movement to acknowledge and perhaps begin to repair the hurt and ruptures created by appropriating objects that have cultural, religious, or political significance to other people and cultures.
When I visited the museum in October of 2023, I found that rather than removing the existing objects, the curatorial team grafted into the exhibit new labels with an orange background and dark text, asking critical questions of ownership, meaning, and entitlement. The brands engage and ask the visitor to reflect on the object's source, how they were acquired, and how they reflect white supremacy and structural racism globally.
At the back of the first-floor gallery, there is a temporary exhibit on Chasing the Jacobite Dream inspired by Outlander, the famous Scottish series of novels, and an ongoing television series that explores the Jacobin movement and Scottish heritage. The series' fame inspired a conference in Glasgow in August of 2023, and this exhibit, which includes materials from the Hunterian, such as coins and medals struck during the Jacobin period by Royalists and Jacobites. The presentation follows a chronology of the Jacobite movement and the propaganda used by both sides, concluding with the death mask of Bonnie Prince Charles to juxtapose the reality of Charles with the imagined heroics of the Stuart pretender. Under the direction of Jesper Ericsson, the Curator of Numismatics at the Hunterian, the exhibit shows how history has been and continues to be distorted for political purposes.
On the second floor, the visitor will find the area that is still the most traditional and needs updating. Here, the gallery is dedicated to science and medicine, with objects tied to Lord Kelvin, whose measurement of absolute temperature and work in physics are universally known. Kelvin’s name adorns much of the area surrounding the university. There are scientific instruments and medical ephemera scattered throughout. Still, perhaps the most shocking collection the visitor encounters is William Hunter’s collection of plaster casts of the uterus of women who died in childbirth. Hunter, a noted obstetrician, used the models for teaching, but the objects are tinged with the grotesque as they show the entire uterus of the woman and the infant who died before being delivered. The exhibit raises questions about trauma in museums' medical ethics and the lack of patient consent.
I enjoyed this small museum gem; although hard to find, the museum is worth the hunt and will only improve as the museum continues to grow and expand the reach of diversity, equity, and community in the gallery spaces.
Address: University Ave, Glasgow G12 8QQ, United Kingdom
Opening Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm; closed over the Christmas and New Year holidays
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Timothy Kneeland, Ph.D. Timothy Kneeland is a professor of History, Politics, and Law at Nazareth University in Rochester, New York, where he teaches and directs a program in Museums, Archives, and Public History. He is interested in how museum collections represent political and cultural power, how museums shape the common understanding of the past, and the use of history to understand museum collections in the present.