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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

What is the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences?

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is a geology museum at Cambridge University that takes you on a journey through 4.5 billion years of the Earth’s history.

Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences History

As the oldest of Cambridge University’s museums, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences has curated one of the most breathtaking collections in the field of geology since 1728. The museum was founded upon the collection of Dr John Woodward, a prominent naturalist and scientific thinker of the university in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. His collection comprised around 10,000 hand-catalogued specimens, and he bequeathed two-fifths of these to the university upon his death.

Woodward’s donation included specimens obtained from early members of the Royal Society – including Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton – and became the core of a substantial university collection. Geologist Adam Sedgwick, who completed the acquisition of Woodward’s collection by the 1840s, proceeded to add fossils to it. Upon his death the university decided to build a museum in his memory, and the Sedgwick officially opened in March 1904 with an inaugural ceremony attended by King Edward VII.

The museum’s collection has since grown to over two million items, spanning four and a half billion years of geological development. Woodward’s bequest has been kept intact as the Museum Woodwardianum, the oldest such geological collection in the world. Other highlights held by the museum include the ‘Beagle Collection’ of specimens taken by Charles Darwin on his famed voyage aboard HMS Beagle, the skeleton of a giant Megaloceros (a type of prehistoric deer) that was purchased by Sedgwick, and the first geological map of the UK.

The Museum's Architectural Significance

The Sedgwick Museum, upon its opening in 1904, was celebrated as a magnificent architectural marvel. Even two decades later, it was hailed as one of the finest examples of modern architecture. Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the museum was designed as a working institution, serving as a research center and a focal point for University teaching. The entire structure is built around a pioneering steel frame, believed to be the first of its kind in the UK. This robust framework was essential to support the weight of countless geological specimens. The museum's entrance from Downing Street is adorned with the University arms, flanked by a giant ground sloth and an iguanodon. The main entrance in the courtyard is guarded by statues of bison and bears, showcasing the museum's commitment to geological and paleontological excellence.

Key Figures in the Museum's History

Dr. John Woodward's contribution to the museum is undeniable. As a Professor of Physik (Medicine), he amassed a collection of rock, mineral, fossil, and archaeological specimens from around the globe. His bequest to the University of Cambridge laid the foundation for the museum's vast collection.

Adam Sedgwick, another pivotal figure, was instrumental in expanding the museum's collection. His association with renowned collectors of his era, like Mary Anning, enriched the museum's offerings. Sedgwick's passion for education and public lectures made him a beloved figure in the academic community.

Professor Tom McKenny Hughes played a crucial role in the construction of the present Sedgwick Museum on Downing Street. His persuasive skills were instrumental in rallying support for a new museum as a tribute to Adam Sedgwick. Through public subscriptions, he raised a staggering £95,000 for the museum's construction.

Mr. Albert George ("Bertie") Brighton, the museum's first professional curator, left an indelible mark on the institution. Many of the specimen labels in the museum today were handwritten by Brighton. He catalogued approximately 350,000 specimens during his tenure, creating a comprehensive taxonomic card index.

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