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.