The Prince and the Plinths
By Hayleigh Jutson, HOPE Community Engagement Officer & GLAM Community Engagement Assistant and Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist
With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in the air, Hayleigh and Danielle reveal the royal connections that are integrated into the very fabric of the Museum, and reveal the surprising story behind our empty plinths.
Visitors walking around the Main Court of Oxford University Museum of Natural History will find themselves circled by the stony gazes of 19 life-sized stone statues. These sculptures of eminent scientists, philosophers, and engineers include likenesses of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Linnaeus, and Isaac Newton. Alongside these men of science stands a statue of Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria. Although now slightly hidden behind the T-rex, Prince Albert’s statue was given pride of place in the main court, a lasting reminder of the Royal family’s contribution to the establishment of the Museum.
Constructed between 1855-1860, the main structure of the Museum of Natural History was built using funds from Oxford University. However, the University only provided enough money to construct the shell of the building. All additional decorations – the stone carvings, pillars, and statues both outside and in – were to be funded by public donations and private subscriptions. To decorate the new building, Oxford’s scientists, along with the architects Deane and Woodward, invited Pre-Raphaelite artists to come up with designs that would represent nature in the fabric of the building.
A key element of the Museum’s decoration involved the commissioning of a series of portrait statues of ‘the great Founders and Improvers of Natural Knowledge.’ These effigies were meant to represent a range of scientific fields of study, and act as inspiration to researchers, students, and other visitors to the Museum. The University came up with a list of six ancient Greek mathematicians and natural philosophers and eleven modern scientists to be included in the Gallery. Funded by private subscription, donors could provide a statue of one of these ‘Founders and Improvers’ for £70 (equivalent to ~£8000 in today’s money).
Prince Albert, a great supporter of the arts and sciences, convinced Queen Victoria to fund the first five statues of modern scientists, costing £350 in total. The first statue that Queen Victoria commissioned and paid for was of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon — remembered as one of the fathers of the ‘scientific method’. His statue was carved by Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. The remaining four statues that Queen Victoria paid for – of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and Hans Christian Ørsted – were to be sculpted by Alexander Munro. However, Munro was only able to complete three of these. After the University of Oxford repeatedly failed to fulfil Munro’s request for a likeness of Ørsted, the statue of the Danish physicist went unfinished. Not wanting to waste the money that had been gifted by Queen Victoria, the Museum decided to arrange for a plaster cast to be made of a pre-existing statue of Ørsted, which was sent over from Denmark in 1855.
It was hoped that Queen Victoria’s generous donation would encourage other wealthy individuals to fund the remaining statues. Initially, the plan worked. However, as time went on, donors began to favour British men of science rather than the University’s original list of international candidates. As a result, funding for many of the statues on the University’s list never materialised, and those plinths remain vacant to this day.
Even if the commissioning of the Museum’s sculptures didn’t go entirely to plan, there is no doubt that Prince Albert made an important contribution to the construction of the Museum. Fittingly, he is also commemorated amongst the Museum’s sculptures. Carved by Thomas Woolner, Albert’s statue sits behind the tail of the T-rex skeleton in the Main Court. It was presented to the Museum by the citizens of Oxford in April 1864, and remains a tribute to a champion of the arts and sciences, and one of the Museum’s earliest and most influential supporters.