The museums of a local, national and supranational hero: Hugh Miller's collections over the decades - NMS Research Repository
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The museums of a local, national and supranational hero: Hugh Miller's collections over the decades

8 August 2017


Hugh Miller (1802-1856), Scottish geologist, newspaper editor and writer, is a perhaps unique example of a geologist with a museum dedicated to him in his birthplace cottage, in Cromarty, northern Scotland. He finally housed his geological collection, principally of Scottish fossils, in a purpose-built museum at his house in Portobello, now in Edinburgh. After his death, the collection was purchased in 1859 by Government grant and public appeal, in part as a memorial to Miller, for the Natural History Museum (successively Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, Royal Scottish Museum, and part of National Museums Scotland). The collection's documentation, curation and display over the years are outlined, using numerical patterns in the documentation as part of the evidence for its history. A substantial permanent display of the Miller Collection, partly by the retired Benjamin Peach (1824-1926), was installed from c. 1912 to 1939, and briefly postwar. A number of temporary displays, and one small permanent display, were thereafter created, especially for the 1952 and 2002 anniversaries. Miller's birthplace cottage was preserved by the family and a museum established there in 1885 by Miller's son Hugh Miller the younger (1850-1896) of the Geological Survey, with the assistance of his brother Lieutenant-Colonel William Miller (1842-1893) of the Indian Army, and the Quaker horticulturalist Sir Thomas Hanbury (c. 1832-1907), using a selection of specimens retained by the family in 1859. It may not have been fully opened to the public till 1888. It was refurbished for the 1902 centenary. A proposal to open a Hugh Miller Institute in Cromarty, combining a library and museum, to mark the centenary, was only partly successful. and the library element only was built. The cottage museum was transferred to the Cromarty Burgh Council in 1926 and the National Trust for Scotland in 1938. It was refurbished for the 1952 and just after the 202 anniversaries, with transfer of some specimens and MSS to the Royal Scottish Museum and National Library of Scotland. The Cottage now operates as the Hugh Miller Birthplace Cottage and Museum together with Miller House, another family home, next door, with further specimens loaned by National Museums Scotland. The hitherto poorly understood fate of Miller's papers is outlined. They are important for research and as display objects. Most seem to have been lost, especially through the early death of his daughter Harriet Davidson (1839-1883) in Australia. Miller's collection illustrates some of the problems and opportunities of displaying named geological collections in museums, and the use of manuscripts and personalia with them. The exhibition strategies can be shown to respond to changing perceptions of Miller, famous in his time but much less well known latterly. There is, in retrospect, a clear long-term pattern of collaboration between museums and libraries in Edinburgh, Cromarty and elsewhere, strongly coupled to the fifty-year cycle of the anniversaries of Miller's birth.


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