• 16 October 2018
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Seminar Room

Fellows Lunch by Pandora Syperek

The transition from the reigning paradigm of natural theology to the new science of evolution in the second half of the nineteenth century has formed a focus within architectural studies of London’s Natural History Museum (1881). The idiosyncratic building is often viewed as a microcosm of the warring factions that dominated the Victorian scientific landscape, best illustrated by the showdown between the statues of Richard Owen and Charles Darwin that came to overlook its central hall. The obsolescence of Owen’s ‘cathedral to nature’ under the subsequent evolutionist regime forms a well-worn narrative. This lecture will complicate this reading and its implications of linear scientific progress by considering the role of art and aesthetics in the design and reception of the Museum. Contemporary criticism responded not only to the building’s scientific obsolescence, but also to its artistic modernism: in contrast with typical neoclassical museum architecture, its neo-Romanesque design resonated with the budding Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements. The feminine associations conjured by these movements’ embrace of decorativeness and techniques traditionally associated with women’s work may have spurred challenges to the architecture’s suitability. However, tensions equally exist between the masculinist professionalisation of science and new evolutionary displays which echoed feminised commercial design in boutiques and department stores. Re-examination of the Natural History Museum within broader assemblages of architecture and display reveals a heterogeneous space indicative of the complexity of Victorian scientific thought and gender norms.

Like the building itself, this lecture centres on the Index Museum: purpose-built to function as an ‘epitome’ of the collections and of nature, the exhibition space and its divergent evolutionist interpretation offers an index of the changing epistemological framework of natural history museums at the end of the nineteenth century, and its interdependence with contemporary developments in art and display culture.

Speakers Bio

Pandora Syperek was postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre from 2016-2017, where she developed her monograph, Jewels of the Natural History Museum: Gender, Display and the Nonhuman, 1851-1901. This research stems from her PhD, completed in the History of Art at UCL in 2015. She has published book chapters on the Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates, censorship of the nude in Interwar Canadian painting and the influence of the Victorian supernatural in contemporary art. She has taught modern and contemporary art and exhibition practices at UCL, Sotheby’s Institute of Art and York University, Toronto.

Image credit: Central Hall (Darwin Statue), British Museum (Natural History), c. 1895. Photograph: A. Gepp. NHM Archives. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum (London).