Sunday, 19 March 2017

A cabinet of rarities': the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne- Royal College of Physicians 30 January–27 - July 2017, Monday–Friday only, 9am–5pm.

“His whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarities and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things”.

John Evelyn, 'The Diary of John Evelyn' (1671)

'A cabinet of rarities': the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne' is a small, delightful and extremely informative new exhibition at the RCP.

Sir Thomas Brown (1605–1682) was an RCP physician, philosopher, collector, and polymath. It is hoped that the exhibition along with ambitious plans to produce a collected works of Browne will go a long way to re-establish his significant contribution to science, medicine, botany, and literature.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682

Although Brown was an intellectual giant of the 17th century, there are aspects of his thought and work that would not look too out of place in the 21st century. His attitude to life and death was a breath of fresh air.

Browne’s world view in many ways encapsulated the contradictions of his age in the sense that in most of his thought and work he was a materialist and a polymath but still held out that witches existed and even testified in witch trials.

Thomas Browne’s world view was a product of mainly two things, Firstly the age he lived as David North notes the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then, mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way[1]

Secondly was Browne’s education. In 1623 Browne went to Oxford University. He graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford. He went on to study medicine at some of Europe’s finest institutions Padua and Montpellier universities, completing his studies at Leiden.

As the exhibition shows, Browne has had a tremendous influence on literary figures. Second, only to Shakespeare, he introduced over 700 new words into the English language such as electricity’ medical,' ‘anomalous’ and ‘coma.'

Great literary figures such as Virginia Woolf said ‘Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are a very good person.’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe have cited him as a major influence on their work.

Much of Browne’s collection of Plants, animal samples books and paintings were housed at Browne's home in Norwich the RCP exhibition has managed to partially reconstruct a sample of this collection.

The exhibition contains a copy of Religio Medici. Browne was celebrated for his religious toleration as well as his learning. Religio Medici is perhaps his best-known work. In it, he wrote:
“I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which within a few days I should dissent myself.”

The collection also contains a cast of Browne’s own skull, made in the years after 1840. His coffin was vandalized and his head and hair sold on to a fellow collector. On show is a rare pirated copy of Sir Thomas’ masterpiece ‘Religio Medici’. Dated 1642.

The collection has been put together by the same team that produced 2016 acclaimed exhibition ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’.

The current exhibition is curated by researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Dr. Harriet Phillips, Research Associate, Queen Mary University of London, and co-curator said
"Sir Thomas Browne was an extraordinary man. A literary sensation and a renowned physician. A seeker of curiosities almost without compare in his time, an exploder of myths, a coiner of new words, a connoisseur of exotic animals and collector of rare plants."


This exhibition is part of a larger project, led by the Queen Mary University of London, which is to edit the entire works of Thomas Browne. Given Browne’s influence and mental status, his writings have never been fully revised, and no earlier edition is in print.

The goal of the 8-volume critical edition is designed to solve this anomaly. The large team of twelve editors includes two AHRC-funded post-doctoral research associates Two AHRC-funded Ph.D. students.

“We hope that this exhibition, together with the collected edition of his works now in progress, will help restore this singular figure to his rightful place: as one of the most attractive men, not just of the 17th century, but of English literary history."


[1] Equality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996-