Access to and Uses of a Natural Philosophy University Collection in the 19th Century

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Abstract Summary
The Natural Philosophy Department of the University of Edinburgh in the 19th century is mostly associated with their famous professors, known for their inventions or their method of teaching, in which they used a wide range of instruments. In this talk, I will explore who in addition of the teaching staff had access to the instruments of the Natural Philosophy Class during the 19th and early 20th centuries and what these instruments were used for. During the surveyed time period the professors J.D. Forbes, P.G. Tait, and J.G. MacGregor consecutively held the Chair of Natural Philosophy and guarded the department’s collection. It appears that during Forbes tenure the objects were mainly used for demonstration in lectures, whereas under Tait a new emphasis was put on practical work undertaken by the students themselves, and that under MacGregor collection items were regularly loaned to researchers of other institutions. These three uses, demonstration, practice and research, will be illustrated by following the path of a selection of historic objects. About 350 of those objects in part of the Natural Philosophy Collection of the University of Edinburgh survive and are now held at National Museums Scotland. Alongside the instruments came a treasure trove of documents that provide an insight on who could access and use the instruments belonging to the Class of Natural Philosophy.
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scientific objects, school teaching culture, material culture, university collection

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