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The wondrous objects collected by William Hunter of the Hunterian 1

an oval portrait of an elderly man in powdered wig

Attributed to George Michael Moser, after Mason Chamberlin, William Hunter, After 1769. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

As the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow reunites the objects collected by its founder William Hunter for a new exhibition celebrating his tercentenary, we look at ten of the 400-plus objects going on display from his original Enlightenment collection, which has survived largely intact. These objects and artworks are the foundation of The Hunterian collections today

The Hunterian Psalter

a photo of an open book showing two beautifully illuminated pages

Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170. © University of Glasgow Library, Archives and Special Collections.

The ‘Hunterian Psalter’, usually housed in the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library, is a lavishly illuminated and bound English manuscript dating to 1170. Considered the greatest treasure of William Hunter’s library, it begins with an illustrated calendar before moving on to the sumptuously illustrated psalms. The pages above show the temptation of Christ, the raising of Lazarus, supper at Emmaus and the appearance of Christ to the Apostles. A true treasure among Hunter’s collection impressive collection of 10,000 printed books and 650 manuscripts – one of the world’s finest surviving Eighteenth Century libraries.

The child in the womb

a cutaway anatomical model showing the womb with a fully formed child inside

William Hunter and assistants, The child in the womb in its natural situation. One of the series of Gravid Uterus casts, c. 1750. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Hunter was a ground-breaking obstetrician and talented teacher with an international reputation. This plaster cast model, one of four now fully restored and on display in the exhibition, was used in preparation for his great publication Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrate, (Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, 1774).  The casts show the various stages of the pregnant human womb in progressive states of dissection in graphic and stunning naturalistic detail. A selection of related drawings, prints and proofs are also included in the exhibition, many of which have not been on display before.

A complete set of Roman emperors

a photo of a round coin with an image of a Roman emperor on it

Double Aureus of Aurelian, 270–75 CE. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

The Holy Grail for Roman coin collectors, Hunter put together a complete collection of 88 gold Roman coins, issued by every Roman Emperor from 27BCE to 491CE. The Hunterian is one of only three places in the world where such a complete series can be seen. This coin features emperor Aurelian who, although he reigned for only five years between AD 270 and 275, is generally regarded as a consolidating emperor who reunited the empire by re-conquering Gaul and parts of Asia while stemming the tide of barbarian invasions.

Imperial China’s view of the world

a large map of the world inside a sphere with Chinese characters

Ferdinand Verbiest, Kunyu Quantu (western hemisphere),1674. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

The Hunterian’s unique 17th century Chinese map of the world, displayed in its entirety for the first time, has the name Kunyu Quantu, which means ‘Full Map of the World’. The map, the western hemisphere version seen below, was actually developed by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest who visited China during the Quing Dynasty in the late 1600s becoming a valued member of the court of Emperor Kangxi.

As well as cartography, Verbiest’s skills included astronomy, geometry, philosophy and music. Add to this his diplomacy and fluency in a range of languages including Latin, German, Spanish and Hebrew and you begin to understand why the emperor regarded him so highly – and put him in charge of the imperial astronomy observatory, which he rebuilt in 1673.

Blue hemimorphite

a photo of a blue crystal

Blue hemimorphite. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

This beautiful example of blue hemimorphite is a zinc-based crystal with distinctive hemimorphic crystal forms. It is thought to have a range of properties relating to psychic powers including mediumship, channelling and healing. It’s one of over 2,000 rock and mineral specimens collected by Hunter, who was most likely attracted to it out of a distinctly rationalist, Scottish Enlightenment quest for science, learning and artistic beauty, rather than as a means to heal the inner emotions.

Severe lateral curvature

a photo of a curved human spine with rib cage mounted for display on a stand

William Hunter and assistants, Severe lateral curvature of the spine, 1746–83. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

This is one of the many anatomical teaching aids which Hunter and his school acquired and used professionally rather than obtained for leisure interests. As a successful professor of anatomy and sought-after physician Hunter counted Queen Charlotte amongst his patients.

Tibetan deity

a manuscript drawing of a Tibetan deity in blue

Idolum Tangutanum, Tibetan, 17th? century, © University of Glasgow Library, Archives and Special Collections.

Hunter acquired this fearsome Tibetan deity in an 18th-century Russian manuscript volume. It’s one of the thousands of books and manuscripts Hunter collected that are now cared for by the University of Glasgow Library. Highlights of the collection include a 15th century Life of Christ by Ludolf of Saxony sumptuously illustrated with 140 miniatures and previously owned by Charles VIII of France, and Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: the only surviving medieval manuscript text of this work.

A Mastodon’s tooth

a photo of a large fossilised molar tooth

Mastodon tooth, Late Tarantian, Pleistocene epoch, Ohio, North America. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Still bearing what we must assume to be its price tag of three ‘English pounds’ this Mastodon tooth came from the fossil rich prairies of Ohio and dates to the Pleistocene period. Often confused with their fellow Ice Age inhabitants, the Woolly Mammoth, Mastadons were slightly smaller and although they were herbivores, they had a different diet – partly evidenced by this molar, which  reveals the cone-shaped cusps designed to crush leaves, twigs and branches.

Thorny oyster shell

a photo of a seashell covered in spikes

Thorny oyster shell, Spondylus gaederopus Linnaeus, 1758. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

The thorny oyster shell, Spondylus gaederopus Linnaeus, ranges in colour from white to orange, red, or purple, although this majestic cluster of them collected by Hunter in 1758 seems to boast all of these hues and more. Apart from their obvious attraction to collectors like Hunter, who collected 8,000 mollusc shells from 1,800 species, shells like these were once highly sought after in the ancient Americas as symbols of fertility and abundance. They were often placed in tombs as offerings or made into exquisite ornaments and jewellery.

Eye of the Nilgai

a photo of an eye 'pickled' in a glass jar

William Hunter and John Hunter, Eye of the Neel ghaw [Nilgai], c. 1768–70. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

In Hunter’s will, which laid out the provision for the University to build a museum in Glasgow for his vast collections, or ‘cabinet’ as it was often referred to at the time, there were hundreds of zoological specimens. Some of the taxidermy deteriorated and were disposed of in the early twentieth century. This survivor is the eye of a Nilgai, sometimes known as the blue bull, which despite its distinctly bovine appearance, is in fact a large antelope native to northern India and Pakistan.

William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum is at the Hunterian Art Gallery from September 28 2018 – January 6 2019 then at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA) from February 14 – May 20 2019.


The Hunterian

Glasgow, Strathclyde

The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow is one of the world's leading university museums. Founded in 1807, it is Scotland's oldest public museum and one of Scotland’s most important cultural assets. Its collections have been Recognised as a Collection of National Significance. Built on the founding bequest of pioneering…

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