A Coral Hand


"Fig. 1" depicts a piece of coral shaped like a hand, while figure "2" features a glass tumbler that appears partially petrified.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 4136
The British Museum

The doors to the British Museum opened to the public in 1759. Although officially founded by an Act of Parliament passed on June 7, 1753, the collections which formed the original content of the museum belonged to three men: Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) (Crook 44). Both Sloane, dubbed “the foremost toyman of his time” by the poet Edward Young, and his collection were already famous by the time George II purchased them for the museum in 1753 (Young 97). The new museum, which prominently displayed Sloane’s natural and man-made curiosities, was a success. A review published in the July 1788 issue of The New London Magazine praises the particular merits of the Sloaniana, “which excite in the contemplative mind the most exalted ideas of divine wisdom in the creation of nature, and prove at the same time a striking monument of human industry” (“An Account of the British Museum” 378).

Visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for tickets, but, as a public institution maintained by government funds, admission was free. As a reviewer wrote in 1839, “The cheapest by far of our public exhibitions as well as in other respects the best, is the British Museum, for that costs nothing” (“Synopsis” 299). Museum policies limited both the number of visitors and the amount of time they were given to look at the exhibits; in 1762, R. Dodsley recorded the rules as follows: “fifteen Persons are allowed to view it in one Company; the Time allotted is two Hours” (xxii-xxiii). In spite of these limitations, the exhibit rooms were frequently over-crowded and the museum-going experience was often harried:
Among the Numbers whom Curiosity prompted to get a Sight of this Collection, I was of Course one; but the Time allowed to view it was so short, and the Rooms so numerous, that it was impossible, without some Kind of Directory, to form a proper Idea / of the Particulars. (Dodsley xiv)
Eric Gidal notes that the British Museum was unique in this unprecedented degree of access granted to the public: "As an institution founded ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public,’ the British Museum marked a union of legitimization and freedom both aesthetic and social" (21). With free admission came crowds, and with those crowds came anxiety regarding who ought to see the collections as well as how they ought to be seen. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the museum continued to gain popularity. By 1805, 12,000 people visited annually. By 1817 that number grew to 40,000, and by 1833 over 210,00 people came each year to see the collections (Goldgar 229-30). As many reviewers noted, large and often raucous crowds were now an inescapable part of the museum-going experience:
[T]he bustling crowds which thrice-a-week are to be seen in the British Museum, swarming with aimless curiosity from room to room, loudly expressing their wonder and disapprobation of the very things most worthy of admiration, or passing with a vacant gaze those precious relics of antiquity, of which it is impossible that they can understand the value as they are, for the most part, insensible to the hallowing associations, which render these objects the links of connexion between distant ages and our own. (“A Visit to the British Museum” 42)
The behavior of these crowds generated considerable anxiety in the press, with one 1839 reviewer even going so far as to publish three “cautions” for visitors to the British Museum and other public exhibitions: “Touch nothing,” “Don’t talk loud,” and “Be not obtrusive” (“Synopsis” 302-3).
The long title of the Museum Britannicum, a guidebook to the British Museum, is as follows:

Museum Britannicum: Or, a Display in Thirty Two Plates, in Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, in that Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the BRITISH MUSEUM, After the Original Designs from Nature, by John and Andrew Van Rymsdyk, Pictors. The Second Edition, Revised and Corrected by P. Boyle. Dedicated (by Permission) to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. London: Printed for the Editor, by J. Moore, No. 134, Drury-Lane. And Sold by T. Hookham, Bond-Street, M,DCC,XCI.
“Two items from the collections of the British Museum: Figure 1, a piece of coral shaped like a hand. This drawing is by Andreas (Andrew) Van Rymsdyk. Figure 2, a glass tumbler with the bottom portion encrusted with a chalk-like substance” is by his father, Jan (John) Van Rymsdyk” (Thornton 70).

Classification. Museum. Natural history. Visual culture.

It is difficult to discern a rationale for the Rymsdyks’ decision to associate these two drawings and thus, to discern these two objects from the collections of the British Museum. Although the coral hand in Figure 1 is clearly a natural production, the accompanying text associates it directly with a similar, man-made product, as well as with another natural production—man: “A very curious Coral, modeled by Nature, in the form of a Hand or Glove” (Rymsdyk 52). Like many of the objects selected by the Rymsdyks for their drawings (the Scythian lamb, a series of calculi and other stones removed from the internal organs of various men and women, and a horn-like protrusion that grew on a woman’s skull) the coral hand seems to defy classificatory boundaries. At first glance, it gives a very convincing impression of a glove or even of an actual human hand—which, given some of the more gruesome contents of Sir Hans Sloane’s “humana” collections, isn’t out of the question.

Coral was itself something of a classificatory puzzle in the eighteenth century—in his 1762 guide to the British Museum, R. Dodsley wrote that "[i]n this Room are also some natural Productions; as several large Corals, a Substance produced in the Sea, but in what Manner is not yet determined by the Naturalists. It was long thought to be a Kind of Vegetable, but is now generally conjectured to be the Cells of some Sea Insects" (21). This ambiguity extends, to some degree, to the object in Figure 2. The encrusted glass vessel is a man-made object, but has been altered by a natural process. Visually, the bulky, encrusted form of the vessel has little in common with the fluid, nearly animate lines of the coral hand. As Daston and Park argue, many of the objects collected in early modern Wunderkammern “illustrated ambiguity and metamorphosis, bringing together what conventional classifications put asunder (coral, described by Ovid as a sea plant petrified by the blood dripping from Medusa’s severed head)” (273). These two objects, collected together in the Wunderkammern of Rymsdyk’s “museum on paper,” share a common defiance of absolute classification rather than common designation within one category or another (Asma 250). The "hand" looks man-made (a glove) or human, but is understood to be either plant or animal; the vessel is man-made, but has been naturally incorporated into a stony substance. Asma argues that Rymsdyk’s apparent disregard for “the modern division of natural versus artificial objects” represents “a defiant return to the disorganization of the earlier curiosity cabinets” (250). While this characterization of Wunderkammern as disorganized is debatable, it is clear that the Rymsdyks, like many collectors of the curious (including Hans Sloane), privileged the suggestive power of juxtaposition over more systematic forms of organization.
“An Account of the British Museum” New London Magazine 4.40 (1788): 377-78. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The British Museum. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

Daston, Lorraine and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone, 1998. Print.

Dodsley, R. The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks. Serving as a Directory in Viewing that Noble Cabinet. London, 1762. Print.

Goldgar, Anne. “The British Museum and the Visual Representation of Culture in the Eighteenth Century.” Albion 32.2 (2000): 195-231. Print.

Rymsdyk, Jan van and Andreas van Rymsdyk. Museum Britannicum, Or, A Display In Thirty Two Plates, In Antiquities and Natural Curiosities, In That Noble and Magnificent Cabinet, the British Museum: After the Original Designs From Nature. 2nd ed. London, 1791. Print.

“Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum” Eclectic Review 6 (1839): 281-306. Print.

Thornton, John L. John Van Rymsdyk: Medical Artist of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oleander, 1982. Print.

Young, Edward. The Poetical Works of Edward Young. Cambridge, 1859. Print.