MUSEOLOGICAL MUSINGS ON THE WILLIAM SMITH (1769-1839) COLLECTION OF FOSSILS, THE FIRST STRATIGRAPHICALLY CURATED IN ENGLAND (Invited Presentation)
Smith clearly hoped for a larger sum than he received. A letter of September 1815 shows that he already expected this amount just as ‘an advance’. A first problem was that English expertise then had no idea how such a unique collection was to be valued. Minerals were objects of beauty, and £13,727 had been found, shortly before, for the BM’s purchase of the Greville collection, of 14,800 specimens. Fossils were different; and their value in prospecting for other minerals, not yet established. It did not help that his collection had gone to an institution which was essentially taxonomic in focus, or that its BM curator was an unsympathetic German, who saw no value in such novel stratigraphy. Smith in 1838 noted “how his collection lay in obscurity”, while Phillips was unable to discover its state in 1844. It was only accessioned by the BM in 1885, after all natural history had moved to South Kensington.
Smith’s collection has been the subject of fine papers, on its taxonomy by L. R. Cox (1930), and on the machinations of its sale by Joan Eyles (1967). When Cox came to examine it, it comprised ”about 2000 (including 275 rock specimens) out of the original 2657". This contribution will discuss a) its novel curatorial system, which ensured high ‘data security’, b) its present state, and c) the lessons it should teach us.