The Museum Curator’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Museum Curator’s Tale

A Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities

by Roger Pickles

The Victorians loved the tradition of cabinets of curiosities – collections of objects of all sorts and categories, often with little explanation, with which to delight visitors. Whitby Museum, founded in 1823 and retaining its nineteenth century atmosphere, strongly resembles an overgrown cabinet of curiosities.

To the left of the entrance in the main hall can be found the collection of geology and fossils from Yorkshire’s Jurassic Coast which was its original ‘raison d’etre’. Mounted on the walls are the fossil saurians (the swimming dinosaurs). The largest of these, Ichthyosaur Crassimanus, dictated the size of this building, constructed in 1931. It was planned to extend horizontally the breadth of the wall but had unaccountably grown several inches between measurement and completion of the building. Some thought the removal of a few vertebrae would never be noticed, but wiser counsels prevailed and it was mounted complete but diagonally.

At the further end of the hall those who trouble to raise their eyes will observe the skeleton of a narwhal or unicorn fish, complete with its valuable ivory tusk as long as its owner. In medieval times powdered unicorn horn was much prized for medical purposes – as an antidote to poison, a cure for melancholy, even an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately the mythical nature of the beasts ensured a severe shortage which wily Scandinavians mitigated by exporting narwhal tusks to parts of Europe where the species was unknown as genuine unicorn horn. Our tusks were brought back by whalers such as Captain William Scoresby, junior, who left us his archive and scientific instruments, including drawings of the differing shapes of snowflakes and a life-size model of the crow’s nest invented by his father.

Across the hall, among the ethnography, stands another life-size model of an Amazon warrior in genuine dress and accoutrements: only the severed head of her enemy is artificial. The king of Dahomey (West Africa) gave the costume and weapons to Whitby-born Governor Richard Beeforth who tried to persuade him to disband this corps. The king, however, declined on the grounds that his proud female warriors would never go back to a mundane life of farming but would be more likely to assassinate him.

In the adjoining Shipping Wing, among the many models, are several men-of-war carved from bone by Napoleonic prisoners of war – and an ivory one bought by a Whitby captain in Dunkirk in 1870 from a drunken Frenchman in return for a two barrels of beer. There is also an extensive collection of modern ships in bottles and all manner of objects in light bulbs.

The two most popular objects are in the centre of the hall. The unique leech-driven Tempest Prognosticator of Whitby physician Dr Merryweather, as demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851, contained 12 live leeches in individual bottles connected to the hammers of a bell. Changes in atmospheric pressure prior to a storm led the leeches to climb to the bottle neck, thus activating the bell. It was originally to be called ‘An Atmospheric Electro-magnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct’, but it was thought foreigners might find this difficult to understand. Nearby is the sinister ‘pickled’ Hand of Glory, a severed human hand discovered hidden in a cottage up Eskdale and widely believed to be a talisman used by burglars as a candle holder. While the candle was lit anyone asleep in a house was sent into a coma from which they could not be awakened while the candle burned.

The somewhat nondescript Ripley Cabinet is easy to miss, but this is a genuine cabinet of curiosities begun around 1810 by a Whitby physician and added to throughout the century. Its drawers contain a wealth of bric-a-brac including the musket ball that killed General Picton at Waterloo (and a twig from the hedge under which he fell!), burnt plaster from the destruction by fire of the House of Commons in the 1830s, an open letter from his apprentices and journeymen to a craftsman begging for some time off on New Year’s Day, and an early airmail letter sent from Paris during its siege by the Prussians in 1870 – by balloon.

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