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Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Russell   [10 March 1847]1

To The Right Honourable Lord John Russell, M.P., First Lord of the Treasury, &c. &c.

We, the undersigned,2 members of the British Society for the Advancement of Science, and of various scientific societies, respectfully submit to the consideration of your Lordship, that a strong feeling pervades the naturalists of our country, that the promotion of the science of Natural History is very inadequately provided for by the present constitution of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum.3

So long as that institution consisted only of a library, with limited collections of antiquities and natural curiosities, it was easily managed by a body consisting of public functionaries, men of rank and general attainments, and the representatives of the chief donors of the Museum.4 When, however, the establishment was so enlarged as to become a national deposit of the productions of nature, both recent and fossil, together with vast additions to the books, manuscripts, prints, statues, &c., supplemental trustees were elected to aid in the direction.5 We rejoice that eminent men of letters were thus associated in the Trust;6 but even so amended, the Board, with the best intentions, we believe, has found it very difficult satisfactorily to perform the numerous and various duties devolving upon it; for although the “ex officio” Trustees, the Presidents of the Royal Society and of the College of Physicians,7 are necessarily persons of weight in science; and although we gratefully witnessed the election of the eminent astronomer, Sir John Herschel,8 we would earnestly represent to your Lordship, that the qualifications of these gifted individuals do not necessarily include an interest in, or the ability to judge of, many of those measures which may best promote Natural History; and, consequently, that there is no effective provision (in the absence of other men of science) for the proper guidance of the Natural History department, or for having at the Board, trustees who can explain to their associates the desiderata of naturalists, and estimate the value of new specimens, either offered to or purchased by the nation.

Fully acknowledging, that in their accomplishments and high characters the present Trustees offer the best sureties for the satisfactory execution of any duties connected with their own pursuits, we still think that, with the best disposition (and they have already done much good service) these distinguished men are unable adequately to direct the vast and rapidly increasing Natural History departments of the Museum;9 and we can even well suppose that they would themselves be happy to be relieved from the heavy responsibility which must be attached to the application of the large sum annually voted by Parliament for the support of natural science.10

Now, in the event of a knowledge of Natural History being in future recognized among the grounds for election to the Trusteeship of the British Museum, we should have reason to anticipate that the sum allotted to this subject would be applied so efficiently and regularly to its extension and improvement, as would best secure the progress of science, and yield most interest and instruction to the public.

Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we beg to suggest, for the consideration of your Lordship, that steps should be taken to effect such an improvement in the constitution of the Trust, as shall render the management of the Natural History departments of the British Museum, as far as possible, independent of the other divisions; and on this point we would beg to refer your Lordship to the original plan of Sir Hans Sloane.11

In offering this suggestion, we do not contemplate a separation of the Natural History collections from the other departments of the British Museum, as we well know that the cultivation of natural science cannot be efficiently carried on without reference to an extensive library.

What we chiefly desire to see is, the formation of such a responsible system of management as may satisfy the public and ourselves, that in this great national establishment, the interests of all branches of natural science will be thoroughly protected and advanced, and that the halls devoted to it shall be so enriched with well selected and well classified objects of contemplation and comparison, as shall not merely gratify the curiosity and excite the wonder of the multitude, but shall prove of real use to the researches of the student and the man of science.12


According to a note at the head of the text, this petition was presented on 10 March 1847.
CD’s name appears thirtieth in a list of fifty-seven signatories, in the form ‘C. Darwin, F.R.S. F.G.S. &c.’ The first four signatories were Roderick Impey Murchison, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, William Willoughby Cole, president of the Linnean Society, William Buckland, reader in geology and professor of mineralogy at the University of Oxford, and Henry Thomas de la Beche, president of the Geological Society of London. Among the remainder were leading figures from all fields of natural history including Richard Owen, Charles Lyell, William Jackson Hooker, Edward Sabine, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Bell, William Spence, Charles Cardale Babington, Nathaniel Wallich, John Lindley, Adam Sedgwick, and Charles Giles Bridle Daubeny.
The original board of forty-one trustees of the British Museum was composed of three principal trustees (the archbishop of Canterbury, the lord chancellor and the speaker of the House of Commons); seventeen official trustees, drawn from major state office-holders and all appointed ex officio; six family trustees representing descendants of Hans Sloane, Robert and Edward Harley, and Robert Bruce Cotton, whose collections formed the original museum holdings, and fifteen additional trustees who were elected by the twenty-six permanent members of the Board. The ex officio trustees included the presidents of the Royal Society of London and the Royal College of Physicians of London. By 1847 the original board had been augmented by the appointment, between 1805 and 1824, of representatives of the Towneley, Elgin, and Knight families following major donations, and by the addition of the president of the Society of Antiquaries and the president of the Royal Academy in 1824, and, from 1832, of a trustee appointed by the sovereign (An act to enable his majesty, his heirs and successors to appoint a trustee of the British Museum [23d June 1832]). See P. R. Harris 1998, pp. 2, 11 and n. For contemporary concern over the perceived lack of representation of men of science, see Stearn 1981, p. 16.
For the original composition of the Board of Trustees, see n. 3 above.
For details of the expansion of the museum’s collections in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see P. R. Harris 1998, pp. 29–45, 75, 134, and 144. The Royal Society’s natural history collection was transferred to the British Museum in 1781, and the Hatchett, Mordaunt, and Cracherode collections of minerals in 1799 (Stearn 1981, p. 20). The principal acquisitions of the early nineteenth century were the King’s Library in 1823, which increased the collection of printed books by over fifty per cent, and the natural history collections of Joseph Banks in 1827 (P. R. Harris 1998, pp. 31–2). For changes to the composition of the Board of Trustees, see n. 3, above. Although no additional trusteeships had been created since 1832, following a House of Commons Select Committee investigation in 1836, any of the fifteen elected trustees who did not attend meetings for a period of more than twelve months was expected to resign, and the committee recommended that eminent men in the sciences, literature, and art should be better represented on the board (ibid., pp. 11, 105–6).
In addition to John Frederick William Herschel (see n. 8, below), the most recently elected members of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum were the constitutional historian Henry Hallam (1837), the antiquary and diplomat William Richard Hamilton (1838), and the diplomat George Leveson Gower Granville (1841). Robert Peel, known for his patronage of men of science, had been a trustee since 1833. See Statutes and rules for the British Museum and Rupke 1994, p. 53.
For the ex officio trustees, see n. 3, above. In 1847, the president of the Royal Society was Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, and the president of the Royal College of Physicians was John Ayrton Paris.
Herschel was elected to the Board of Trustees of the British Museum in August 1843 (Herschel calendar, no. 5571).
The natural history department of the British Museum was effectively created in 1835 when the museum’s various botanical collections were brought together and placed in the care of Robert Brown. Following the recommendations of a House of Commons Select Committee in 1837, the natural history department was formally split into three sections, botanical, zoological, and mineralogical and geological, each with its own keeper. See Stearn 1981, pp. 22–4.
For details of government expenditure on the British Museum in this period, see History of the king’s works 6: 403–21.
For Sloane’s will, see Faulkner 1829, 1: 363–73. Under its terms, Sloane left his collections for the public use and stipulated that they should remain in London, and be kept together, since they tended to ‘the manifestation of the glory of God, the confutation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and sciences, and benefit of mankind’ (ibid., p. 365). See also MacGregor ed. 1994. The head of the department of printed books, Anthony Panizzi, had been campaigning for the natural history collections to be moved to make more space available for the library (Stearn 1981, pp. 23–4).
Largely as a result of this petition, a Royal Commission was appointed in June 1847 to investigate the constitution and administration of the museum; Buckland, one of the signatories to the petition (see n. 2, above) was appointed a trustee in the same year (Statutes and rules for the British Museum). The commission reported in 1850 and recommended that the various collections should not be dispersed and that the building should be enlarged. It also recommended changes to the organisation of the natural history departments (P. R. Harris 1998, pp. 165–73). No serious reorganisation took place, however, until the establishment of the British Museum (Natural History) and the transfer in 1880 of the natural history collections to a separate site in Kensington (ibid., pp. 241–2; see also Rupke 1994). For CD’s involvement with the continued campaign on behalf of the natural history collections, see Correspondence vol. 7, Appendix VI.


Faulkner, Thomas. 1829. An historical and topographical description of Chelsea, and its environs; interspersed with biographical anecdotes of illustrious and eminent persons who have resided in Chelsea during the three preceding centuries. 2 vols. Chelsea: T. Faulkner [and others].

Harris, P. R. 1998. A history of the British Museum library, 1753–1973. London: The British Library.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

Stearn, William T. 1981. The Natural History Museum at South Kensington: a history of the British Museum (Natural History), 1753–1980. London: Heinemann in association with the British Museum (Natural History).


Memorial presented by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific societies, submitting that natural history is inadequately provided for by the present constitution of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum.

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Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell
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Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1070F,” accessed on 26 February 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13 (Supplement)