‘But Indifferently Lodged…’: Perception and Place in Building for Science in Victorian London

  • Sophie Forgan
Part of the Science, Technology and Medicine in Modern History book series (STMMH)


It was not unusual in the second half of the nineteenth century to hear scientists claiming that they were shabbily accommodated and warranted more generous provision from the public purse or from their university coffers. The inadequacies of existing spaces loomed large in successive Select Committees of Enquiry. Much of the time of course this was a highly debatable assertion. Certainly it became a standard element of the rhetoric, both verbal and visual, which was deployed in efforts to gain more space and prestige for scientific activities. By contrast it is arguable that in the great expansion of university building which took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, science was more privileged than most in straightforward quantitative measures of space. Science buildings often took the lion’s share of space in the new colleges and universities which emerged in the industrial towns of the north and the midlands. In London there were already two well established colleges, University College and King’s, though both of these had problems in terms of their sites as well as finance. A third area began to emerge from the 1850s in South Kensington, where the whole site appeared magnificently generous in spatial terms, but development would be plagued by competing interests, Treasury economies, changes of Government, architectural argument, let alone the haphazard piling up of collections which urgently needed to be housed. The general picture however painted by contemporaries was that there was not enough space, and indeed the acquisition of new buildings and facilities was sometimes presented simply as a minor victory in an on-going battle.


Natural History Museum British Museum Science Building Select Committee Natural History Collection 
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  1. 1.
    The six groups were, and still are, Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition and Affections.Google Scholar
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    There were only four words which referred to writing, ‘horn-book, rudiments, vade-mecum, abecedary’, all of which seem distinctly elementary in character.Google Scholar
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    This was a long running debate, but see for example, Nature: 2 May 1878.Google Scholar
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    The Royal College of Science building, which was known from the 1930s as the Huxley Building, was returned to the Museum in the mid-1970s, and renamed the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The naming process neatly reflects the changing ‘ownership’ of the building.Google Scholar
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    The building also functioned as a ‘lesson in stone’, as did the Oxford University Museum and the Natural History Museum, by incorporating the subject matter of science into the building, both in a material sense in the fabric of the building, and in terms of representing and depicting various aspects of the subject.Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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  • Sophie Forgan

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