The Hunterian Museum

The Hunterian Museum is nestled within the University of Glasgow’s Gilmorehill campus in the West End, making it slightly hard to find on such enormous grounds. But that hasn’t stopped countless visitors from making their way to The Hunterian (which insists on the capital T). Established in 1807 after William Hunter (1718–1783) bequeathed his Enlightenment collection to the University, the museum has expanded, moved multiple times, and spilled over into extra buildings ever since. The Hunterian Art Gallery lies across the road, where students pass it every day on their uphill trek to the library. In 2016, a purpose-built storage and research facility opened at Kelvin Hall to house over 1.5 million objects and specimens. In 2020, a lot has changed; yet The Hunterian still remains part of the University, as it has for over two hundred years.

You can either take the lift up or climb an elegant wooden staircase lined with blue carpet. Green arrows on the floor mark out designated visitor routes in these pandemic-stricken times. In order to maintain the museum’s capacity, you need to book a free timed ticket in advance (see details at the end of this article). Next to the entrance is a sanitising station where you can show your ticket (printed or on a mobile phone) to the friendly front desk staff. Face coverings are, of course, compulsory.

Sleek wall panels set against crisp cream and grey backdrops explain Hunter’s role in the Scottish Enlightenment. The brand-new Crusades coinage display sits before assorted tools of eighteenth-century study—a glass bell labelled in delightfully old-fashioned handwriting, a framed graduation certificate inscribed with swirling loops of ink. Dozens of jars in the nearby wall-length glass case hold anatomical and animal specimens, which proved very popular with a legion of small boys rampaging through the gallery that day. Two massive sets of moose and deer antlers loom overhead. Almost protectively, such diverse items from Hunter’s scientific collection encircle an oblong central area devoted to Roman Scotland. This juxtaposition of subject matter should look bizarre, but The Hunterian makes it work. With a constantly-manned front desk located in this welcoming entry space, the gallery orientates visitors while exhibiting a stimulating variety of objects—and promising more to come.

Eighteenth-century glass bell containing crinoid specimen

The central area attracts visitors instantly. Columns frame the entrance to this permanent exhibition without dominating the whole gallery. Well-lit and symmetrically arranged, the displays balance modern, shiny graphic design with the lustre of their sandstone artefacts. This area is evidently the core of the room’s layout, but there are multiple open pathways encircling and crisscrossing it. It’s an attractive configuration of space, enhanced by low lighting which casts a warm glow on sandstone, text, and glass alike. Between those great columns, a History-Channel-esque billboard proclaims the title in mile-high gold lettering: ‘THE ANTONINE WALL: ROME’S FINAL FRONTIER’.

The traces of the Antonine Wall are quite clearly the museum’s pride and joy. Turf-built and swiftly abandoned, the Antonine Wall is much less visible in today’s landscape than the stone remains of Hadrian’s Wall. The so-called Jewel of Antiquity, a carved stone fragment dating the Antonine construction to 142–143 CE, sits in a tasteful gleam of golden light. Distance slabs once marked the length of the earthwork and recorded Roman legions’ achievements. Now, they line a U-shaped pathway through the exhibition. There are only nineteen known examples, and The Hunterian holds sixteen of them.

Along the same pathway are examples of late-Roman and Romano-British sculpture—a water nymph with a Celtic hairstyle, two altars built to pacify Britannia’s native deities. You can get close enough to see tiny sparkles embedded in the sandstone; there are no glass fronts or rope barriers in the way. The photo below demonstrates just how close I could get to an altar without setting off any alarms.

Close-up of an altar at Castlehill Fort, West Dumbartonshire, dedicated ‘to the Goddesses of the Parade Ground and to Britannia’ by the Roman officer Justus

Other elements of the display strategy work to make such precious objects seem accessible. Labels include outlines of stone objects and reproductions of the often-fragmentary writing (with English translations). With carvings copied onto nearby panels and diagrams completing the slabs that only partially survived, it’s much easier to decipher what you’re seeing. I appreciated these conscious design choices to make the jigsaw puzzle of the past comprehensible.

Cradled in the crook of the U-shaped pathway is a long, narrow display case. The artefacts here are made of various materials, requiring more enclosed and controlled environments than their stone counterparts. There are soldiers’ surprisingly long leather shoes, pieces of a glass window, pins and cloak brooches and armlets and rings, cooking pots and bottles, playing counters—everyday trappings of frontier life. The same case houses a fine book of engravings, published by the University of Glasgow in 1768 as ‘the first record of the sculptured stones from the Antonine Wall’.

It’s difficult to take photographs from a wide angle when trying not to trample tiny children, bump into display cases, or lean on pillars older than my country. But perhaps that’s a selling point. This space is comfortable, if not chaotic, and decidedly family-friendly. The visitor pathways already feel familiar on only my second visit. Compared to the breathtaking Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, The Hunterian’s galleries are reassuring in their size—not enormous, not small and cramped, just right. And there are fewer of them. Some museums are so overwhelming you can hardly hope to view all their rich offerings in a single visit. There’s always a gallery or two you’ve missed out. Not so with The Hunterian.

Statue of James Watt (1736–1819) and accompanying text

Exiting the Antonine exhibition, you turn left (passing a book-shaped display on William Hunter’s library) and walk into a short, creamy-walled hallway. This hallway displays various items related to the University of Glasgow, including a model of the Old College site. The Laskey Catalogue (1813), The Hunterian’s first catalogue and the oldest museum guidebook in Scotland, sits in a glass case flush with the left wall. But the most important and loaded object in this room is the statue of James Watt—yes, that Watt, the great Scottish engineer who lent his name to a unit of measurement. The statue’s label has just been updated to reflect Watt’s close connections to slavery in the Caribbean, and to acknowledge that his achievements were made possible by those profits.

The University of Glasgow has traditionally prided itself on its historical involvement in abolitionist campaigns. But recent steps have been taken to recognise that the University’s development—like Watt’s innovations—benefited from the financial and intellectual contributions of slave owners. In some places the campus is literally built on slaveholding foundations. A plaque near The Hunterian’s exit names one wealthy West Indies enslaver whose house once stood on that site, and commemorates the innumerable unnamed. Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, a report published by Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen in 2018, kickstarted an ongoing programme of reparative justice. The Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies, which launched on 27 October 2020, is named after a woman enslaved by the University Rector in the late eighteenth century. These bloody threads of human suffering and resistance stretch across the globe; we are still in the process of uncovering wounds both deep and raw. Curator Dr Nicky Reeves has written an excellent blog post on James Watt’s legacy, which can be found here.

Plaque acknowledging the University of Glasgow’s connections to slavery

Without this prior knowledge, however, you could walk right past the statue without noticing its symbolic volatility. Inconspicuously located beside the entrance to a far more dramatic gallery, it’s practically a piece of furniture. There’s even a stack of plastic chairs shoved against the wall next to it. As Dr Reeves pointed out in his class with Museum Studies postgraduate students, the statue is huge and very heavy. Museum staff might have trouble moving it safely under normal circumstances, not to mention COVID-19 physical distancing regulations.

So unless you know to look for the statue, you’ll very likely be distracted by the spectacular sights visible through the nearby doorway. Here, the building unfolds into two massive rectangular spaces stacked directly on top of each other. From below, you can look up and see the balustrades on the upper floor (which is really more of a pathway supported by pillars). From above, you get an excellent bird’s-eye view of this magnificent place. The upper floor can be reached by two wooden staircases, ideal for the museum’s current one-way visitor system. Major scientific and anatomical exhibitions are located upstairs: William Hunter was an obstetrician who took plaster casts of many patients’ bodies. These patients’ names and details are not known. Modern eyes may be repelled by eighteenth-century standards of medical ethics, and a sign near the entrance staircase warns visitors that the dissections on display can be upsetting.

Spot the bird: Long-tailed tit and nest
Spot the rodent: Harvest mouse nests

Downstairs, the great hall is encyclopaedic in its remit—zoology, geology, paleontology, natural history, archaeology. A stunning butterfly cabinet stands near the exhibit on Scotland’s first discovered meteorite, which was reported in the Glasgow Herald in 1804. (The text of the newspaper article is reproduced on the back of the meteorite display.) Dinosaurs and the Earth’s first vertebrates aren’t far away. There’s a tiny fossilised footprint nestled between the toes of a much larger one. Mineral samples glitter delicately in their glass cases. A magpie, harvest mouse, long-tailed tit, and red-billed quelea all stand guard over their nests, the organic materials painstakingly preserved under low light and captioned ‘ANIMAL ARCHITECTURE’. Mounted on a stand—where it swims in mid-air in perpetuity—is the skeleton of a false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens), stranded in the Dornoch Firth in 1927.

Cleopatra’s coin portrait

The items directly connected to human beings are just as striking. There’s a tiny gold coin bearing Cleopatra VII’s portrait, and a section of a tree associated with David Livingstone. One vertical display case holds a graceful formation of bladed weapons; a horizontal case contains Bronze Age tomb pottery.

Part of the tree where David Livingstone’s heart was buried

Some objects are clustered under the names and biographies of their donors, individuals such as Frederick Eck (1806–1884) and Ina Smillie (d. 1975). These compact displays share a long, narrow, table-height glass case partitioned into a linear sequence of box-like spaces. Tightly organised in this manner, the bequests are snapshots of highly idiosyncratic collectors’ interests. Here are beetles lovingly carded by Thomas George Bishop (1846–1922); there’s the pewter and glass collection of Lewis Clapperton (1865–1947). Walking down the length of the display case feels like flipping through a family album.

Museum floorplans on display

Both the donors’ case and the Pseudorca crassidens skeleton stand in the middle of the room, ringed by a long sofa where you can sit down to rest. Unsurprisingly, that sofa resting spot is an instant visitor attraction (now with COVID-19 distancing measures in place). But it’s just one part of this enormous room, one core space in a mini-universe of overlapping planetary spheres. A large area near the entrance is devoted to The Hunterian’s location history. On the opposite side of the room, where space unfolds into an ever-expanding series of nooks, hangs a 1674 circular world map made for the Kangxi Emperor. Other works on paper include the writings of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, illuminated by icy blue light. Each group of objects revolves in its precious allocated space like asteroids in orbit, and the overall effect is harmonious rather than cacophonic.

Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

One such group pays court to the famous Lady She-pen-hor, who was mummified in Thebes circa 600 BCE. Only her sarcophagus is visible, perhaps due to ethical concerns about exhibiting human remains; Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, for example, removed Shuar tsantsa (shrunken heads) from public display in 2020. Two massive wall panels are positioned directly behind She-pen-hor’s display case. One bears a lifesize photograph of her elegantly painted coffin, with annotations explaining each figure’s significance. The other panel gives her height as 1.47m (4’10”) and includes an X-ray scan of her body, taken in 1977. Black-and-white photographs of early excavations adorn the walls nearby.

This is where the museum’s interpretation and display strategies troubled me. The same concerns surrounding human remains—an issue explicitly addressed in ICOM’s code of museum ethics—apply to objects and archaeological material acquired by violence, coercion or theft. Yet some section panels portray European colonisation as purely intellectual exploration, or naturalise it as a universal human practice. In the text pictured below, so-called voyages of discovery are described euphemistically: ‘During these exchanges the European culture tended to dominate.’

Section panel: ‘Around the World in 1,000 Years’

Another text (titled ‘Exploration’) states, ‘The arrival of the “first contact” Europeans to remote societies brought new ideas and materials.’ Though I am no expert on eighteenth-century Atlantic history, I’m uneasy about the presentation of such encounters as mutually beneficial. In the glass case opposite, wood carvings by Yoruba artist Thomas Ona Odulate (1900–1952) offer an invaluable Nigerian perspective on colonial missionaries to West Africa. Ona’s witty, sophisticated depictions are a welcome counterpoint to the panel text. Unfortunately, their presence alone is not enough to balance out cursory understatements like ‘Gradually the cultures underwent some changes but still retaining [sic] influences from their own history.’

Such careful omissions and silences form a pattern that you can’t unsee. One of the individuals named in the central donors’ case, Emile Louis Bruno Clement (1843–1928), bequeathed several Australian Aboriginal artefacts to the museum. These wooden items are fascinating—message sticks used as passports, music sticks ‘rubbed against the side of a spear thrower to produce a rasping sound’—but one wonders how they were obtained.

2020 has been a year of reckoning long overdue. Many readers will already be familiar with the current literature on repatriation, not least Dan Hicks’ explosive The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (2020). The Hunterian has made a good move by recontextualising its statue of James Watt, and perhaps many other updates are in the pipeline.

Exiting the museum

Tues–Sat: 10am–4pm

Sun: 11am–4pm

Admission: Free

Book timed tickets here:

Note: For the EU-funded digital storytelling project EMOTIVE, The Hunterian developed the story of Ebutius, a Roman centurion at the Antonine Wall. ‘Ebutius’s Dilemma’ is an audio-narrated virtual experience allowing users to navigate a photorealistic environment, manipulate 3D scans, and access information about people and artefacts. Watch a 1-minute video or explore more EMOTIVE experiences here.

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Wei Ai Ng

Wei Ai Ng is currently a Masters student in Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow. She earned her BA in History and English from the University of Oxford, where she regularly volunteered at the Ashmolean Museum. Wei Ai has written research reports for the United Kingdom’s National Trust and the Netherlands-based Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation. She aims to specialise in museum education, with a focus on early childhood development.