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Darwin Correspondence Project

To the Chancellor of the Exchequer   18 November 1858


Memorials presented to the British government in 1858

In 1858 Darwin signed two petitions that were presented to the government concerning a proposal to move the natural history collections of the BritishMuseum to a new site. The museum buildings in Bloomsbury had become severely crowded during the 1830s, and the first of many official inquiries into possible expansion was launched in 1848 – 9. By 1857 no consensus had been reached, and a second inquiry was initiated with specific reference to the natural history collections, of which Richard Owen was then superintendent. The sub-committee of 1857, of which Roderick Impey Murchison was a member, urged expansion at the Bloomsbury site in preference to relocating the natural history material. Although the government agreed to this decision in principle, no action was taken. After the general election of 1858, a new set of government ministers asked the trustees once again to consider their position on the integrity of the nation’s collections (see Stearn 1981). Murchison felt it was important to present the views of a broad spectrum of the scientific community on the matter. He drew up a ‘Memorial of the promoters and cultivators of science on the subject of the proposed severance from the British Museum of its natural history collections, addressed to Her Majesty’s government’. This memorial was signed by 114 scientists and naturalists, including John Wrottesley, then president of the Royal Society, and presented at a meeting of the trustees on 16 July. For Darwin’s views on the memorial, see the letters to R. I. Murchison, 19 June [1858] and 24 [June 1858]. The text of the memorial is transcribed below.

Darwin’s correspondence with Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley indicates that by November 1858 the trustees had nonetheless decided to move the natural history collections out of the Bloomsbury building in order to provide space for other collections. Moreover, the death of Robert Brown in June 1858 released the trustees from their obligation to house the large botanic collection bequeathed by Joseph Banks in 1827 on the condition that Brown be the sole curator. A small group of prominent naturalists (including Huxley, William Benjamin Carpenter, John Lindley, and John Stevens Henslow) therefore drew up a second petition, addressed to the chancellor of the exchequer, proposing the rearrangement of the natural history holdings into two new ‘scientific’ and ‘popular’ museums divided by subject. Darwin discussed the issue in some detail with Hooker, and believed it inconsistent to sign one petition deploring the move and then another apparently endorsing it. Hooker, however, was not publicly involved with the second memorial: Kew Gardens would benefit from the rearrangement proposed in this memorial, and Hooker felt it inappropriate that he should be seen actively to support it. Darwin eventually signed the second memorial—after some hesitation, expressed in letters to Hooker and Huxley—and it was sent to Benjamin Disraeli accompanied by a letter from John Lindley. The memorial was published by Lindley in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 27 November 1858, p. 861, and in the Athenæum, 27 November 1858, pp. 684--5. The text of the second memorial is transcribed following the first.

MEMORIAL of the Promoters and Cultivators of Science on the Subject of the proposed Severance from the British Museum of its Natural History Collections, addressed to Her Majesty’s Government.

The Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the best site for a National Gallery, and recent discussions in Parliament having led to the contemplation of breaking up the British Museum, by severing from it the Natural History Collections, we, the undersigned, promoters and cultivators of natural knowledge, beg to record our strong objections to such removal, and for the following reasons:—

1st. The British Museum, when established by Act of Parliament in 1755, was essentially a Natural History Collection, the enlightened views of its founder, Sir Hans Sloane, being that it should “be rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons.”

2d. This object of Sir Hans Sloane has been so satisfactorily carried out, that according to the Report of the last Royal Commission, which inquired into the whole state of the Museum (1849), “the evidence of men of the highest authority in science was referred to with great satisfaction, to show that the Natural History Collections were, as a whole, equal if not superior to any in the world.”

3d. Whilst we are aware that much greater space is required to provide for the reception of antiquities and ancient sculpture (chiefly on the ground floor) it has been ascertained by the Trustees,1 that when additional buildings shall be called for, they can be extended northwards in halls requiring little embellishment, and, according to a plan laid before the Trustees by Mr. Smirke,2 involving a con-siderably less expenditure than that which must be incurred by a transference of those collections to any other spot, and the consequent erection of an entirely new edifice. On this point we beg to quote the following3 resolutions adopted by the Trustees of the British Museum, composing the Standing Committee, as printed in a Return to the House of Commons, dated 4th February 1858.

“The Committee having had under their consideration the report of the principal librarian,4 dated 10th November 1857,


“1. That it appears from such report that there is a great deficiency of space at present for the proper exhibition of the different collections in the different departments of the Museum, and that there is no vacant space now belonging to the Trustees which will be sufficient to provide for such deficiency.

“2. That in providing an adequate space for that purpose, it is very desirable to contemplate the future and progressive, as well as the actual and immediate requirements of the British Museum.

“3. That it appears to the Trustees that the best mode of providing for such present and future requirements will be by adopting the plan submitted by Mr. Smirke for the purchase of land to the north of the Museum, as contained in the report of the principal librarian.

“4. That, in the opinion of the Trustees, even if the increase of the collections which are under their care should at some future time make it necessary to transfer any of those collections to some other place, the land of which the purchase is now recommended must always be of great and peculiar value to the Museum.

“5. That such plan, together with the present resolutions, shall be laid before Her Majesty’s Ministers, with the view of requesting their concurrence therein, and their recommendation thereof to the consideration of Parliament.”

4th. Presuming that few persons will be found to advocate the removal of the grand masses of ancient art from their present position, so it is manifest that, if all the Natural History Collections be taken away, their transference will afford no place for the classical works, which now temporarily encumber the principal façade, or crowd the crypts below.5 For, as such massive objects must be placed on the ground floor, so an extension of the basement is inevitable, if the antiquities remain part of the Museum, and all that the Natural History Collections can require for their future development will be an allotment of space above such extension of the ground floor.

We would also observe that the prolongation of the present building northwards on the above-mentioned plan, besides being much less costly than the formation of an entirely new building, will put a stop to all controversies respecting the appropriate site, and the style of architecture to be applied to a new building.

5th. In reference to other suggestions that have been vaguely thrown out, of a breaking up of the Natural History Collections of the nation into several parts, by transferring, e.g. the minerals to the Government School of Mines; the stuffed animals to the Zoological Society; the insects and shells to the Linnean Society, &c., we have first to observe, that not any of the above institutions, two of which are only voluntary associations of individuals, possesses the space or means for the reception and display of such constituent parts of the great national series of illustrations of nature; and, further, that as the chief end and aim of natural history is to demonstrate the harmony which pervades the whole, and the unity of principle which bespeaks the unity of the Creative Cause, it is essential that the different classes of natural objects should be preserved in juxtaposition under the roof of one great building.

6th. We further strongly object to the proposed transference, because those engaged in the study of natural history have in the British Museum the paramount advantage of consulting every work which can aid their researches; whilst a removal of the collections would either involve a conjoint transference of a very large portion of the National Library, or necessitate a very expensive purchase of a special Natural History Library.

7th. Whilst such are among the prominent reasons against the removal of the Natural History Collections from the site where they have been established, for upwards of a century, in the centre of London, we beg to add the expression of our opinion that such removal, particularly if to any situation distant from that centre, would be viewed by the mass of the inhabitants with extreme disfavour; it being a well-known fact that by far the greater number of visitors to the Museum consists of those who frequent the halls containing the Natural History Collections; whilst it is obvious that many of those persons who come from the densely peopled districts of the eastern, northern, and southern parts of London would feel it very inconvenient to resort to any distant locality.

For these reasons, as based on scientific advantages, the convenience and instruction of the people, and the saving of a large sum to the nation, we earnestly hope that the Natural History Collections may not be interfered with, but be allowed to remain associated with the many other branches of human knowledge which are so admirably represented in this great national establishment.

Her Majesty’s Government, we trust, will never yield to the argument that, because in some countries the products of Nature and Art are exhibited in distinct establishments, therefore the like separation should be copied here. Let us, on the contrary, rejoice in the fact, that we have realised what no other kingdom can boast of, and that such vast and harmoniously related accumulation of knowledge is gathered together around a library, illustrating each department of this noble Museum.

[The item from the Parliamentary Accounts and Papers finished here.]

To the Right Honourable the Chancellor of the Exchequer.6

Sir,—The necessity of the removal of the Natural History Departments from the British Museum having been recently brought prominently before the Public, and it being understood that the question of their reorganisation in another locality is under consideration, the undersigned Zoologists and Botanists, professionally or otherwise engaged in the pursuit of Natural Science, feel it their duty to lay before Her Majesty’s Government the views they entertain as to the arrangements by which National Collections in Natural History can be best adapted to the twofold object of the advancement of Science, and its general diffusion among the Public—to show how far the Scientific Museums of the Metropolis and its vicinity, in their present condition, answer these purposes,—and to suggest such modifications or additional arrangements as appear requisite to render them more thoroughly efficient.

The Scientific Collections or Museums, whether Zoological or Botanical, required for the objects above stated, may be arranged under the following heads:—

1. A general and comprehensive Typical or Popular Museum, in which all prominent forms or types of Animals and Plants, recent or fossil, should be so displayed as to give the Public an idea of the vast extent and variety of natural objects, to diffuse a general knowledge of the results obtained by Science in their investigation and classification, and to serve as a general introduction to the Student of Natural History.

2. A complete Scientific Museum, in which Collections of all obtainable Animals and Plants, and their parts, whether recent or fossil, and of a sufficient number of specimens, should be disposed conveniently for study; and to which should be exclusively attached an appropriate Library, or Collection of Books and Illus-trations relating to Science, wholly independent of any general Library.

3. A comprehensive Economic Museum, in which Economic Products, whether Zoological or Botanical, with Illustrations of the processes by which they are obtained and applied to use, should be so disposed as best to assist the progress of Commerce and the Arts.

4. Collections of Living Animals and Plants, or Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

The Typical or Popular Museum, for the daily use of the general Public, which might be advantageously annexed to the Scientific Museum, would require a large building, in a light, airy, and accessible situation. The Collections should be displayed in spacious galleries, in glass cases, so closed as to protect them from the dirt and dust raised by the thousands who would visit them; and sufficient room should be allowed within the cases to admit of affixing to the specimens, without confusion, their names, and such illustrations as are necessary to render them intelligible and instructive to the Student and the general Public.

The Economic Museums and Living Collections in Botany might be quite independent of the Zoological ones.

The Scientific Museum, in Zoology as in Botany, is the most important of all. It is indispensable for the study of Natural Science, although not suited for public exhibition. Without it, the Naturalist cannot even name or arrange the materials for the Typical, Economic, or Living Collections, so as to convey any useful infor-mation to the Public. The specimens, though in need of the same conditions of light, airiness, &c., as, and far more numerous than, those exposed in the Typical or Popular Museum, would occupy less space; and they would require a different arrangement, in order that the specimens might, without injury, be frequently taken from their receptacles for examination. This Scientific Museum, moreover, would be useless unless an appropriate Library were included in the same building.

The union of the Zoological and Botanical Scientific Museums in one locality is of no importance. The juxtaposition of each with its corresponding Living Collection is desirable, but not necessary—although, in the case of Botany, an extensive Herbarium and Library are indispensable appendages to the Garden and Economic Museum.

The existing Natural History Collections accessible to Men of Science and to the Public, in or near the Metropolis, are the following:—

In Botany.— The Kew Herbarium, as a Scientific Collection, is the finest in the world; and its importance is universally acknowledged by Botanists. It has an excellent Scientific Library attached to it; it is admirably situated; and being in proximity with, and under the immediate control of the Head of the Botanic Garden, it supersedes the necessity of a separate Herbarium for the use of that Garden and Museum. But a great part of it is not the property of the State;7 there is no building permanently appropriated for its accommodation, and it does not include any Collection of Fossil Plants.

The Botanical Collection of the British Museum, consisting chiefly of the Banksian Herbarium, is important, but very imperfect.8 It is badly situated, on account of the dust and dirt of Great Russell Street; and the want of space in the existing buildings of the British Museum would prevent its extension, even were there an adequate advantage in maintaining, at the cost of the State, two Herbaria or Scientific Botanic Museums so near together as those of London and Kew. The British Museum also contains a valuable Collection of Fossil Plants, but not more readily available for Science than its Zoological Collections.

There exists no Typical or Popular Botanical Museum for public inspection.

The efficiency of the Botanical Gardens and Museum of Economic Botany at Kew,9 as now organised, and the consequent advantages to Science and the Public, are too generally recognised to need any comment on the part of your Memorialists.

In Zoology.—The British Museum contains a magnificent Collection of Recent and Fossil Animals, the property of the State, and intended both for public exhibition and for scientific use. But there is no room for its proper display, nor for the provision of the necessary accommodation for its study—still less for the separation of a Popular Typical series for public inspection, apart from the great mass of specimens whose importance is appreciated only by professed Naturalists. And, in the attempt to combine the two, the Public are only dazzled and confused by the multiplicity of unexplained objects, densely crowded together on the shelves and cases; the man of science is, for three days in the week, deprived of the opportunity of real study;10 and the specimens themselves suffer severely from the dust and dirt of the locality, increased manifold by the tread of the crowds who pass through the galleries on Public Days,—the necessity of access to the specimens on other days preventing their being arranged in hermetically closed cases.

A Museum of Economic Zoology has been commenced at South Kensington.11

There is an unrivalled Zoological Garden or Living Collection, well situated in the Regent’s Park, but not the property of the State, nor receiving any other than indirect assistance, in the terms on which its site is granted.12

The measures which your Memorialists would respectfully urge upon the consideration of her Majesty’s Government, with a view to rendering the Collections really available for the purposes for which they are intended, are the following:—

That the Zoological Collections at present existing in the British Museum be separated into two distinct Collections,—the one to form a Typical or Popular Museum, the other to constitute the basis of a complete Scientific Museum.

These Museums might be lodged in one and the same building, and be under one direction, provided they were arranged in such a manner as to be separately accessible; so that the one would always be open to the Public, the other to the man of science, or any person seeking for special information. This arrangement would involve no more trouble, and would be as little expensive as any other which could answer its double purpose, as the Typical or Popular Museum might at once be made almost complete, and would require but very slight, if any, additions.

In fact, the plan proposed is only a further development of the system according to which the Entomological, Conchological, and Osteological Collections in the British Museum are already worked.

That an appropriate Zoological Library be attached to the Scientific Museum, totally independent of the Zoological portion of the Library of the British Museum, which, in the opinion of your Memorialists, is inseparable from the General Library.

That the Scientific Zoological Museum and Library be placed under one head, directly responsible to one of her Majesty’s Ministers, or under an organisation similar to that which is practically found so efficient in regard to Botany.

That the Museum of Economic Zoology at South Kensington be further developed.

Your Memorialists recommend that the whole of the Kew Herbarium become the property of, and be maintained by, the State, as is now the case with a portion of it—that the Banksian Herbarium and the Fossil Plants be transferred to it from the British Museum—and that a permanent building be provided for the accommodation at Kew of the Scientific Museum of Botany so formed.

This consolidation of the Herbaria of Kew with those of the British Museum would afford the means of including in the Botanical Scientific Museum a Geographical Botanical Collection for the illustration of the Colonial Vegetation of the British Empire, which, considering the extreme importance of vegetable products to the commerce of this country, your Memorialists are convinced would be felt to be a great advantage.

Your Memorialists recommend further, that in place of the Banksian Herbarium and other miscellaneous Botanical Collections now in the British Museum and closed to the Public, a Typical or Popular Museum of Botany be formed in the same building as that proposed for the Typical or Popular Museum of Zoology, and, like it, be open daily to the Public.

Such a Collection would require no great space; it would be inexpensive, besides being in the highest degree instructive; and, like the Typical or Popular Zoological Collection, it would be of the greatest value to the public, and to the Teachers and Students of the Metropolitan Colleges.

That the Botanical Scientific Museum and its Library, the Museum of Economic Botany, and the Botanic Garden, remain, as at present, under one head, directly responsible to one of her Majesty’s Ministers.

The undersigned Memorialists, consisting wholly of Zoologists and Botanists, have offered no suggestions respecting the very valuable Mineralogical Collection in the British Museum, although aware that, in case it should be resolved that the Natural History Collections generally should be removed to another locality, the disposal of the Minerals also will probably come under consideration.

November 18, 1858.

George Bentham, V.P.L.S.

George Busk, F.R.S. and Z.S., Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology to the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

William B. Carpenter, M.D., F.R.S., and Z.S., Registrar of the University of London

Chas. Darwin, F.R.S., L.S., and G.S.

W. H. Harvey, M.D., F.R.S. and Z.S., &c., Professor of Botany, University of Dublin.

Arthur Henfrey, F.R.S., L.S., &c., Professor of Botany, King’s College, London.

J. S. Henslow, F.L.S. and G.S., Professor of Botany in the University of Cambridge.

Thomas Huxley, F.R.S., Professor of Natural History, Government School of Mines, Jermyn Street.

John Lindley, F.R.S. and L.S., Professor of Botany in University College, London.


By custom, there were 49 trustees of the British Museum, 24 of whom were appointed because of the office they held in government or in public life. The three principal trustees in 1858 were the archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner; the lord chancellor, Frederick Thesiger; and the speaker of the house of commons, John Evelyn Denison. Benjamin Collins Brodie, the incoming president of the Royal Society, was also a trustee by office. Roderick Impey Murchison had been elected in 1852 with specific responsibility for natural history.
Robert Smirke was the architect of the British Museum. The building was completed in 1847.
The original printed copy reads ‘follow-’.
Anthony Panizzi was appointed principal librarian of the museum in 1856. He was involved with the two preceding commissions of inquiry into the administration and housing of the collections and was generally believed to favour the removal of the natural history material from the Bloomsbury government site in order to expand the library. Thomas Babington Macaulay said of Panizzi in this context, ‘he would give three mammoths for one Aldus’ (DNB).
An article in the Quarterly Review (104 (1858): 201–24) discussed various contributions to the contemporary debate about the museum, describing in detail the plight of the museum authorities, and in particular the problem of housing Austen Henry Layard’s monumental acquisitions from Nineveh. It reported (ibid., pp. 208–9) that:
Benjamin Disraeli was the chancellor of the exchequer in 1858. In the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 27 November 1858, p. 861, the text of the memorial was preceded by an explanatory note by the editor, John Lindley. The note reads: The following correspondence has just passed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer:— “Sir,—As one of a body of working Naturalists deeply interested in the fate of the Natural History Collections now in the British Museum, I am requested to transmit for your consideration the enclosed Memorial, which we believe to express the views of a large number of persons engaged in the pursuit of science, although it has not been considered necessary to send it round for general signature. We also understand that it has the full concurrence of Sir William Hooker and others whose official situation prevents their actually joining in it. “Should you desire to receive any personal explanation of our views we shall be happy to form a deputation to wait upon you at whatever time you may be pleased to appoint. “I have the honour, &c., | (Signed) John Lindley.”
The herbarium and many of the works in the botanical library housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, were the personal property of William Jackson Hooker.
Joseph Banks had bequeathed his botanical collection and library to the British Museum in 1827, stipulating that Robert Brown be appointed curator (see Mabberley 1985).
The Museum of Economic Botany was established in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1847.
The British Museum was open to the public for only three days a week.
The South Kensington Museum was established in 1856 and run by the Department of Science and Art. It contained a museum of animal products inherited from the Great Exhibition of 1851. See Sheppard ed. 1975, p. 99.
The zoological garden was owned by the Zoological Society of London and funded by the subscriptions of fellows and public admission fees.


Mabberley, David J. 1985. Jupiter botanicus. Robert Brown of the British Museum. Brunswick, Germany: J. Cramer. London: British Museum (Natural History).


CD and eight zoologists and botanists publish a memorial on "the arrangements by which National Collections in Natural History can be best adapted to the advancement of science and its general diffusion among the Public".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Sent from
Source of text
Parliamentary Accounts and Papers, Finance; banking; revenue, &c., Session 3 December 1857–2 August 1858, 33: 499–503; Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 27 November 1858, p. 861

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2365,” accessed on 22 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7