La longue et riche histoire des collections de l’Université d’Aberdeen (Écosse), par le Professeur Peter Davidson.

L’Université d’Aberdeen (Écosse) a peut-être la plus ancienne collection publique d’Europe. Son origine remonte au premier XVIIe siècle, lorsque deux Colleges, King’s et Marischal, se sont lancés dans des politiques d’embellissement et de conservation, encouragées et relayées par leurs dirigeants ou par différentes figures de professeurs.

Les collections ont d’abord été conçues, selon l’idée qui prévalait à la Renaissance, comme généralistes et encyclopédiques, incluant aussi bien des pieces relatives aux beaux arts que des instruments mathématiques, des spécimens d’histoire naturelle, un jardin botanique, et bien entendu des livres remarquables, dont certains, des manuscrits d’une grande rareté et d’une particulière magnificence, étaient montrés au visiteur érudit de passage. Cet article du Professeur Peter Davidson, de l’Université d’Aberdeen, retrace les étapes qu’a connues cette collection.


Museum History and Overview: University of Aberdeen


The history of collecting associated with the Colleges (King’s 1495 and Marischal 1593) which joined in 1860 to constitute the modern University of Aberdeen is long and rich. It can be realistically claim to be one of the oldest public collections in the Anglophone world, especially bearing in mind that until the later eighteenth century there is little if any hard and fast distinction between different types of collection which would now be seen as divided into library and museum. And that collections of manuscripts, paintings, prints, scientific instruments, botanical specimens and curiosities coexisted in a continuum of public and semi-public rooms, gardens and repositories.

It could be argued that the first curatorial decision taken by the Colleges of the university was the preservation at the Reformation of the portrait of Bishop William Elphinstone the founder of King’s College. Presumably from the altarpiece of the Chapel exceptionally not destroyed but preserved out of piety to a founder annually commemorated until the c18. After that there is evidence that both Colleges displayed paintings in their public rooms. Like those of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge these tended to be a ‘Parnassus’ of distinguished figures associated with the Colleges. Principal William Guild’s 1641 commission to the Aberdeen painter George Jamieson to paint the twelve sybils for the Common Hall of the College is a fine-art acquisition from an admired contemporary artist as well as an adroitly-neutral set of subjects in times so tense that even portraits could be interpreted as dangerous implications of alliegance. It is interesting that as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries progressed King’s College developed an unusal sense of its own past and traditions and repaired and conserved existing paintings as well as commissioning eighteenth-century copies and likenesses of pre-reformation founders and benefactors.

At Marischal College, the picture collection, under the energetic Principal Paterson in the early eighteenth century, combined a local ‘parnassus’ with likenesses of internationally-famous savants. Later in the century, a series of nostalgic Stuart portraits were placed on public display, a last gesture of loyalty to a past order. The united University was, in time, to attract a distinguished collection of gifts and bequests of portraiture and landscape, with a particular strength in the Scottish colourists.


There are indications that both Colleges developed collections of living plants in the course of the seventeenth century: from Marischal we have the Hortus sanitatis with the apothecary George Peacock’s annotations of Scots common plant-names; from King’s we have three entries in a register of donors to building funds, dated 1688, stating that their gifts replace promised donations to a Physic Garden.


Duncan Liddell’s 1613 bequest to Marischal did not only include medical and humanistic books, it contained also what we might call scientific objects, including his manuscript Copernicus with volvelles. Marischal also received substantial donations of globes and scientific instruments in the course of the seventeenth century.


The 1624 Thomas Reid bequest to Marsichal college included what are still two of the University’s most treasured manuscripts: the Aberdeen Codex of the Hebrew Bible and the Aberdeen Bestiary. It is clear from subsequent accounts, including that of the visit of Samuel Johnson in 1773 [?] that these manuscripts were shown to the cultivated traveller as amongst the greatest curiosities at Marischal. Reiterate here that the early-modern definition of curiosity transcends subsequent category.


Similarly, The King’s College Album Amicorum records donations of objects as well as of books: in the 1630s the physician Alexander Reid gave globes and mathematical instruments; in the 1650s William Dowglas gave pieces of tapestry.


A forerunner of the archaeological and anthropological collectors of subsequent centuries was the King’s College Professor of Theology, James Garden (1645-1726). As correspondent and informant of John Aubrey, Garden was contributing to the beginnings of scientific archaeology and anthropology in Britain. His interest in prehistoric antiquity and in excavations at prehistoric sites seem inevitably to predicate a collection, but he was deprived of his Chair in 1697 for his refusal to take the oath to William and Mary: the subsequent fate of his books, papers and collections is unclear. Given his contacts and his broad and progressive intellectual interests, it is particularly to be regretted that he took his possessions with him into the shadow world of the non-jurors.


At King’s, there are clear indications that there were moves towards a museum collection in the earlier eighteenth century. One object still in the university collection is a kayak in which a native of Greenland was driven ashore in the earlier eighteenth century. Its presence in King’s Chapel is recorded in the diary of a visiting clergyman, Francis Gastrell of Stratford upon Avon, who visited Aberdeen in 1760:

In the Church. . . was a Canoo about seven yards long by two feet wide which about thirty two years since was driven into the Don with a man in it.. .

So it was clearly on display in a semi-public context.

The first mention in the University accounts of a formal display of curiosities in the library of King’s College is found in the accounts “Vouchers and Receipts” for the year 1727 which records payment associated with “the curiosities displayed in the Library.”

The later eighteenth century holder of the Chair of Humanity at King’s College, William Ogilvie is the crucial figure for the establishment of a museum in the modern sense at King’s College. He was already a noted numismatist, and appears quietly to have been building up museum materials before the formal establishment of the museum itself. This expansion and consolidating all took place at a time before Ogilvie’s zeal for reform and modernisation obtained for him the position of college pariah (late 1770s), when all the authorities wanted was to get rid of him, or shut him up, in neither of which were they successful.


John Malcolm Bulloch’s 1895 History of the University of Aberdeen, indicates that Senatus minutes indicate at least an intention to establish a museum of Natural History at King’s “with models of the most useful and curious instruments and machines, ancient and modern” as early as 1753-4, and the 1900s copies of (probably now lost) museum inventories currently preserved in the Marischal Museum records a donation of “curiosities” from Patrick Gordon in 1751. Although coming considerably later than Ashmole’s Collections in Oxford, this is still interesting when compared with the date of the establishment of the British Museum.


The King’s Procuration Accounts also give indications of collection and display: £2 14s freight was paid in 1769 for “a bust of the King of Danemark” ; in 1770, indicating a more substantial and extensive arrangement, £30 and 18s  were paid for “a fir[pine] press for the museum.”


A set of drawings for a rebuilding of King’s in the manner of a contemporary Roman College, undertaken by the exiled virtuoso and art dealer James Byres of Tonley (found in Aberdeen University Library MS K 252) indicate plans for a museum of some ambition. One of the sections through Byres’s projected front block indicates a library room looking inward to the courtyard, triple height, with two ranges of galleries, ornamented with a statue of Atlas bearing the world. The style is essentially that of Borromini’s Biblioteca Vallicelliana.


The first organised museum collection at King’s came as a result of the development of empirical study of history in the 18th century and was greatly facilitated by the arrival of artefacts collected / donated to (by travelling alumni) and occasionally purchased by the College Responsible for this was Professor of Humanity, William Ogilvie, who had particular interest in natural history and the fine arts.


30 November 1792, Subprincipal Roderick Macleod informed King’s Senatus that Mr Ogilvie,


Having furnished the museum with a considerable variety of specimens in natural history… is desirous of fitting up a small Museum of Antiquities on a similar plan.

1st Prints and drawings from the Statues, Bust, Bas reliefs, and remains of antient buildings.

2nd A Collection of medals, comprehending the Greek Cities and Kings, the Roman Consular and Imperial, with the Colonial and those of the Greek Cities under the Roman Emperors…may be procured at a modest expense…

3rd An a[ss]ortment of well chosen sulphurs[i.e.casts] from the ancient gems (also at a modest expence).

[AU MS K 48, ‘King’s College Senatus Minutes, 1789-1800’, f.26r.]


One of Ogilvie’s students (and nephew of the expatriate virtuoso Colin Morison), Pryse Lockhart Gordon, on his return from Italy in 1800, visited King’s and presented Ogilvie with “a few Greek and Roman coins, and also some fragments form Pompeii and a small genuine Greek vase”. The museum also contained:

“A large collection of castes in sulphur which my uncle, Mr. C. Morison, had presented to the College…they probably would never have seen the light, had they not been committed to the especial care of Ogilvie.”

Ogilvy also made serious efforts to recover for King’s the very considerable collection of Italian paintings which had been left to the college by the expatriate aesthete Colin Morison (this collection included a remarkable proportion of “primitives” for its date). However since Morison died at Rome during the Napoleonic occupation, the paintings were confiscated as enemy property and dispersed, although some of them may be tentatively identified with works now in the Louvre. Had this stupendous collection indeed come to King’s College the great Tribuna of James Byres’s unexecuted design would indeed have been needed to accommodate them.


Professor Peter DAVIDSON, University of Aberdeen


Note de l’éditeur :

Voir aussi ce lien (fichier pdf, article de Neil Curtis) vers l’histoire des collections de l’Université d’Aberdeen.