The Oxford Museum
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
By, Regius Professor of Medicine, and , Honorary Student of Christ Church. London, 1859.
THE last ten years hare formed a remarkable period in the history of the ancient and honored University of Oxford. Guided by wise and discerning counsels, it has made rapid and substantial advance. The scope of its studies has been greatly enlarged, the standard of its requirements raised. Its traditionary adherence to old methods and its bigoted conservatism have been overcome, and with happy pliancy it has yielded to the demands of the times and adapted itself to the new desires and growing needs of men. Its aristocratic prejudices have not been allowed longer to confine its privileges and its operations to one class alone of the community,—and in identifying itself with the system of middle-class education, Oxford has won new claims to gratitude and to respect, and now exercises a wider and more confirmed authority over the thought of England than ever before. To us, who take pride in her ancient fame, who honor her long and memorable services in the cause of good learning, who cherish the memory of the great and good men, the masters of modern thought, whom she has nurtured, who recall the names of our own forefathers who came out from her and from her sister University with will and power to lay the foundations of our state, and whom, hy her discipline, in the midst of all the refinement of books and the quietness of study, she had prepared to meet and to overcome the hardships of exile, poverty, and labor, in the cause of truth and freedom,—to us it may well he matter of rejoicing to witness the freshness of her spirit and the spring of her perennial youth,— to see her
“ so famous,
So excellent in art, and still so rising.”
One of the most marked features of the advance that has lately been made is the full recognition of the Natural Sciences as forming an essential part of the scheme of University studies. For centuries there had been an “intellectual onesidedness’' at Oxford. It had chiefly cultivated classic learning. But it has now undertaken to repair the deficiency that existed in this respect, and, while still retaining all its classic studies, it has added to them a full course of training in the knowledge of Nature. “Our object is,” says Dr. Acland, speaking as one of the professors of the University, “our object is,—first, to give the learner a general view of the planet on which he lives, of its constituent parts, and of the relation which it occupies as a world among worlds ; and secondly, to enable him to study, in the most complete scientific manner, and for any purpose, any detailed portion which his powers qualify him to grasp.”
Such an object brings the University into full sympathy with the present tendencies of education in our own country. With us, scientific pursuits and the study of Nature are receiving greater and greater attention and engrossing a continually larger share of the interest, the time, and the talent of students. There already exists, and there is danger of its increase, in many of our best institutions of learning, and many of our most educated men, an intellectual onesidedness of a contrary, hut not less unfortunate character, to that which long existed at Oxford. The temper of our people, the wide field for their energies, the development of the so-called practical traits of character under the stimulus of our political and social institutions, the solitary dissociation of America from the history and the achievements of the Old World, the melancholy absence of monuments of past greatness and worth, — these and many other circumstances peculiar to our position all serve to weaken the general interest in what are called classical studies, and to direct the attention of the most ambitious and active minds far too exclusively to the pursuits of science. And when to these circumstances peculiar to ourselves is added the influence of those general causes which have had the effect of leading men throughout the civilized world to give of late years more ami more of thought and study to the investigation of Nature and to the pursuits resulting therefrom, it is not strange that learning, socalled, should, for the present at least, find itself but poorly off in America, and that the essential value of learned studies for an even and fair development of the intellectual faculties should be far too little regarded. The danger that arises from a too exclusive devotion to scientific pursuits is pointed out by Dr. Acland in a passage which deserves thoughtful consideration, coming as it does from a man distinguished not more for scientific eminence than for his wide and cultivated intellect. “ The further my observation has extended,” he says, “ the more satisfied I am that no knowledge of things will supply the place of the early study of letters, — literœ humaniores. I do not doubt the value of any honest mental labor. Indeed, since the material working of the Creator has been so tar displayed to our gaze, it is both dangerous and full of impiety to resist its ennobling influence, even on the ground that His moral work is greater. But notwithstanding this, the study of language, of history, and of the thoughts of great men which they exhibit, seems to be almost necessary (as far as learning is necessary at all) for disciplining the heart, for elevating the soul, and for preparing the way for the growth in the young of their personal spiritual life; while, on the other hand, the best corrective to pedantry in scholarship, and to conceit in mental philosophy, is the study of the facts and laws exhibited by Natural Science.”
Oxford, having thus fully acknowledged the need of enlarging her system of education, at once set about preparing a home for the Natural Sciences within her precincts. The building of the Oxford Museum is a fact characteristic of the large spirit of the University, and of special interest from the design and nature of its architecture. It is not merely intended for the holding of collections in the different departments of physical science, but it contains also lectureand work-rooms, and all the accommodations required for in-door study. To provide the mere shell of such a building, the University granted the sum of £30,000. The design that was selected from those which were sent for competition was of the Gothic style, — the work of Messrs, Deane and Woodward; and this style was chosen because it was believed, that, “ in respect of capacity of adaptation to any given wants, Gothic has no superior in any known form of Art, and that, this being so, “it was, upon the whole, the best suited to the general architectural character of Mediaeval Oxford.” “The centre of the edifice, which is to contain the collections, consists of a quadrangle,” covered by a glass roof. The court is surrounded by an open arcade of two stories. “ This arcade furnishes ready means of communication between the several departments and their collections in the area.” “ Round the arcade is ranged upon three sides the main block of the building,”—the fourth side being left unoccupied by apartments, to afford means for future extension. Each department of science is provided with ample accommodations, specially adapted to its peculiar needs. The building, as it stands at present, is in its largest dimensions about 330 by 170 feet. Its erection has formed an epoch not only in the history ot Oxford, but also in that of Gothic Art in England.
It is the first considerable building which has for centuries been erected in England according to the true principles of Gothic Art. It is a revival of the spirit and freedom of Gothic architecture. It is no copy, but an original creation of thought, fancy, and imagination. It has combined beauty with use, elegance with convenience, and ornament with instruction. It has proved the perfect pliancy of Gothic architecture to modern needs, and shown its power of entire adaptation to the requirements of new conditions. In its details no less than in its general scope it exhibits the recognition by its builders of the essential characteristics of the best Gothic Art, and shows in the harmonized variety of its parts the inventive thought and the independent execution of many minds and bands presided over by a single will. Gothic architecture in its best development is the expression at once ot law and of liberty. The exactest principles of proportion are combined in it with the freest play of fancy. Its spaces are divided mathematically by the rule and the square, its main lines are determined with absolute precision, — but within these limits of order the imagination works out its free results, and, because limited by mathematical laws, reaches the most perfect freedom of beauty.
But the system of Gothic decorations, “which,” says Mr. Buskin, '‘took eight hundred years to mature, gathering its power by undivided inheritance of traditional method,” is not an easy thing to revive under new and difficult conditions. A single example of what has been attempted in this way in the Oxford Museum must suffice to show the spirit which pervades its construction. The lower arcade upon the central court is supported by thirty-three piers and thirty shafts ; the upper arcade by thirty-three piers and ninety-five shafts. “ The shafts have been carefully selected, under the direction of the Professor of Geology, from quarries which furnish examples of many of the most important rocks of the British Islands. On the lower arcade are placed, on the west side, the granitic series; on the east, the metamorphic; on the north, calcareous rocks, chiefly from Ireland; on the south, the marbles of England.” The capitals and bases are to represent different groups of plants and animals, illustrating the various geological epochs, and the natural orders of existence. Thus, the column of sienite from Charnwood Forest has a capital of the cocoa palm; the red granite of Boss, in Mull, is crowned with a capital of lilies ; the beautiful marble of Marychurch has an exquisitely sculptured capital of ferns ; — and so through all the range of the arcades, new designs, studied directly from Nature, and combining art with science, have been executed by the workmen employed on the building.
To complete the beauty of the court, massive corbels have been thrown out from the piers, upon which statues of the greatest and most famous men in science are to be, or are already, placed. Those shafts and capitals and statues have been, in great part, the gift of individuals interested in the progress and successful completion of such a building. The Queen presented five of the statues ; and her example has been followed by many of the graduates of the University and lovers of Art in England.
Mr. Buskin ends iris second letter in the little book before us with these words : “ Although I doubt not that lovelier and justcr expressions of the Gothic principle will be ultimately arrived at by us than any which are possible in the Oxford Museum, its builders will never lose their claim to our chief gratitude, as the first guides in a right direction ; and the building itself, the first exponent of recovered truth, will only be the more venerated, the more it is excelled.”
Such is the way in which Oxford, having a Museum to build, sets to work. She lays down a large and generous plan, and erects a building worthy of her ancient fame, worthy to increase the love and honor in which she is held, — a building that adds a new beauty to her old beauties of hall and chapel, of quadrangle and cloister. She does not mistake parsimony for economy ; she does not neglect to regard the duty that lies upon her, as the guardian and instructress of youth, to set before their eyes models of fair proportion, noble structures which shall exercise at once an influence to refine the taste and the sentiment and to enlarge the intellect. She acknowledges the claims of the future as well as of the present, and does not erect that which the future, however it may advance in constructive power, will regard as base, mean, or ugly. She recognizes the value to herself, as well as to her sons, of all those associations which, through the power of her adorned and munificent architecture, shall bind them to her in ties of closer tenderness, and of strong, though most delicate feeling. Her building is to have an aspect that shall correspond to the nobility of its function,— that shall impress the student, as he walks along the hard and dry paths of science, with some sense, faint though it be, of the beauty of that learning which is furnished with so goodly an abode. The influence of a fine building, complete in all its parts, is one which cannot be estimated in money, cannot be investigated by any practical process, but which is nevertheless as strong and precious as it is secret, as constant as it is unobserved.
it would seem that there could be no country in the world where buildings of the noblest kind would be more desired than in America, for there is none in which they are so much needed. But such is not the case. As men who have lived long in darkness become so accustomed to the want of light as not to feel its absence, so the absoluteness of the want of fine buildings in America prevents that want from being generally felt. Heirs of the intellectual wealth of the past, we have no inheritance of the great works of its hands. No material heirlooms have been transmitted to us. We are cut off from any share in the monuments on which the labor, the affection, and the possessions of former generations were expended. The precious and enlarging associations connected with such works, which bind successive generations of men together with ties of memory and reverence, stimulating the imagination to new conceptions, and nerving the will to large efforts, have nothing to cling to here. The land is barren and naked; and, moreover, no effort is made to relieve the future from the want which the present feels so keenly. With wealth ample enough for undertakings of any magnitude,—with intelligence, more boasted than real, but still sufficient for the conception of improvement, we exhibit in our civilization neither the taste nor the capacity for any noble works of Art. The value of beauty is disregarded, and the cultivation of the sense of beauty is treated as of little worth, compared with the culture of what are styled the practical faculties. Our wealth is spent in the erection of extravagant stores and shops,—in the decoration of oyster-saloons, hotels, and steamboats,— in the lavish and selfish adornment of drawing-rooms and chambers. In the whole breadth of the continent there is not a single building of such beauty as to be an object of national pride, and few which will have any value in future times, except as historic records of the poverty of sentiment and the deficiency of character of the men of this generation.
Our oldest and best endowed University has, like Oxford, lately engaged in the erection of a Museum, which, though more limited in its general object, has yet a scope of such large and generous proportion as to make it a work of even more than national interest. It is undertaken on such a scale as to fit it not merely for present needs, but for the increasing wants of later times. The State has contributed to it from the public treasury, and private citizens have given their contributions liberally towards its support. The building has been rapidly carried forward, and the portion undertaken is now near completion. How does it compare with the Oxford Museum ? What provision has been made that in its outward aspect it shall correspond with the worth and grandeur of the collections it is to hold and the studies that are to he carried on within it ? What patient thought, what stores of imagination, what happy adaptations do its walls reveal ? These questions are easily answered. Convenience of internal arrangement has been sought without regard to external beauty, without consideration of the claims of Art. The architect has, we must suppose, been obliged to conform his plans to the most frugal estimates ; but we cannot help thinking, that, generous as the State has been, it would have been more worthy of her, had no such necessity existed. The buildiug for the Museum is one which can never excite high admiration, never touch any chord of poetic sentiment, never arouse in the student within its walls any feeling save that of more convenience and utility. Its bare, shadowless walls, unadorned by carven columns or memorial statues, will stand incapable of. affording support for those associations which endear every human work of worth, covering it with praise and remembrance, as the ivy clings to the stone, adding beauty to beauty,— associations which make men proud of their ancestors and desirous to equal them in achievement. The University at Cambridge, just entering on the second quarter of its third century, has not a single building that is beautiful, perhaps we might say none that is not positively ugly; and we almost despair of a future when our people shall become enlightened and magnanimous enough to appreciate noble architecture at its true worth, as the expression of the greatness of national character, as an enduring record of faith and of truth, and as an essential instrument in any system of education that professes to be complete.