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Distant Thunder - A word to the wise

dfgAs geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers, bricks and mortar are not always the best investment

‘Naming opportunities’ are all the rage. Soliciting a substantial donation in exchange for the privilege of having one’s name attached to a handsome new or refurbished building is a popular way for institutions to raise much needed funds and for donors to ensure immortality. But buildings alone do not a museum or university make – a sentiment strongly felt by the geologist Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875).

In a letter written in February 1836, Lyell warns his friend, Gideon Mantell (1790 – 1852, picture) about the evils of architects. Mantell, who in 1885 discovered Iguanodon, the second type of dinosaur formally recognised, was raising funds to establish a museum in Brighton to display his collection.

“… I had not time to tell you when you were here, how much I apprehend that the architect will run away with whatever money a zeal for science or friendship and regard for you may raise by subscription at Brighton,” Lyell writes.

“ I remember that when some £8000 had by great effort been got together at Bristol, for lectures, and for a collection of books and other useful aliment for the mind, as the misguided projectors thought; in came the architect, gave them a handsome building, pocketed the cash, and left them with a room for the newspaper readers, and scarce a farthing to pay their invaluable curator, Millar…

“…the planners of the London University followed the same track, and spent several hundred thousand pounds in erecting a huge and never-to-be-finished edifice … and leaving nothing for professors but debt. Then came the King’s College, and another splendid subscription, for the is no end to the gullibility of John Bull … Had they hired a set of the ugliest houses in the Strand, and bribed, with their two or three hundred thousand pounds, the first teachers in Great Britain, they would have carried everything before them. But what did they do? Reared a huge wing of a building that swallowed up all the money … There is no hope for natural history or science or literature, until they precede, instead of following, the architect.

“Having spent all the money and mortgaged the handsome edifice, there will be nothing left for the Mantellian collection. Still left for the lectures. Try and preach against this, though I have but faint hope.” A sentiment to which many of today’s collection managers, curators, educators and university lecturers can only add Amen!


  • Sources for this vignette include: Life Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart.  Author of Principles of Geology &c, Edited by his sister-in-law, Mrs Lyell, In 2 volumes – Vol 1 With Portraits, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1881; the Wikipedia entry for Gideon Mantel; The entry for Gideon Mantell by Dennis R. Dean, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter visit the new HOGG website at: where you’ll also find abstracts for the talks and posters

*Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.