William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum
William Hunter (1718–1783), the Scottish physician who served in London as obstetrician to Queen Charlotte and as a professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts, was also one of the foremost collectors of his day. Hunter’s unparalleled holdings encompassed paintings, works on paper, coins and medals, rare books and manuscripts, ethnographic objects from around the globe, anatomical and zoological preparations, insects, shells, minerals, and fossils. His bequest to the University of Glasgow secured the enduring public utility of his collections and established one of the first modern, encyclopedic museums anywhere: The Hunterian.
This volume accompanies the eponymously titled exhibition that explores the rich variety of objects acquired by Hunter, or prepared and preserved in the course of his professional practice, while considering the deep connections among the many branches of knowledge they represent. In their totality, Hunter’s collections helped to shape an emerging conception of the modern museum as an institution for learning, based on inquiry into nature and the products of art.
Hunter’s anatomical investigations and teaching echoed the Enlightenment objective to systematize knowledge. He applied empirical methods to reveal, record, and publish the inner workings of the body, in particular, the anatomy of pregnancy. The research materials for his atlas of the human “gravid uterus” are evidence of his legacy in medical science.
The objects collected by Hunter frequently reflect contemporary topics of debate—from extinction (the tooth and tusk of the North American mastodon) to the best use of color and perspective to represent the world (canvases by Chardin, Rembrandt, and Koninck). Presented together, as Hunter intended, the collections provide the occasion to contemplate how knowledge was—and still is— produced, and to examine the continuing role of museums in reflecting and shaping the modern world.
Mungo Campbell is Deputy Director of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow; Nathan Flis is Head of Exhibitions and Publications and Assistant Curator of Seventeenth-Century Paintings at the Yale Center for British Art; and María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui is William Hunter Tercentenary Curator at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.