His “cabinet of curiosities”, an encyclopedic collection of objects amassed to show off the depth of his scientific knowledge, was reconstructed in the 1970s, having been stored in attics for a century.
Today, it goes in display again, but Sir William might be less than amused to learn that his treasures are now a laughing stock.
Hull Maritime Museum has enlisted the services of the comedian Bill Bailey to put a new spin on the old hoard, as one of a series of “curious collections” events picking out the most unusual objects from the city’s archive, during its year-long tenure as the UK’s City of Culture.
Mr Bailey helped a group of eight to 11 year-olds select their favourite items from the 18th century curiosity cabinet, on loan from the trustees of Sir William’s old pile, Burton Constable Hall, in the East Riding farmlands north of the city.
Among their choices: a prize coco de mer nut, the largest seed in the world, from a rare species of palm tree native to the Seychelles archipelago, which, noted the children and Mr Bailey, bore a striking resemblance to an enormous pair of buttocks.
Their fancy was also taken by an old amplification horn, which one child mistook for a machine for making crumpets.
“We wanted to do something special this year,” said Robin Diaper, a curator of maritime and social history, who has spent a year and a half helping to put the new exhibition together.
“With a comic slant, we hope we can reach new audiences.”
No disrespect to Sir William was intended, he said. “We have taken inspiration from him, hopefully in a learning way.”
The Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition, which runs through the summer, is believed to be the first museum attraction to have been curated by a comedian.
Mr Bailey, who has supplied an idiosyncratic commentary and added some of his own work to the artefacts amassed by Sir William, said he had enjoyed “the hilarious work by my learned young friends”.
He added: “I hope people will visit and marvel at the extraordinary, gasp in astonishment at the unusual, and perhaps be strangely moved by the wonders of the natural world.”
Mr Diaper said Sir William was an eccentric who would have compiled his original collection, some of whose exhibits date back to the 1600s, by referencing that of the antiquarian and museum keeper Ralph Thoresby, who is credited as the first historian of Leeds.
“He would have wanted to be seen as an educated and learned person within the community,” Mr Diaper said.
“This was a time when, if you were well enough educated, it was believed you could learn everything there was to know about the world.”
Not all the items stand up to scrutiny in today’s more enlightened times: a supposed horn of a unicorn, which was supposed to have “magical properties”, is actually a whale’s tusk.
Sir William’s original Cabinet of Curiosities is among the largest of its kind in England, and includes what is thought to be the world’s first telescope to compensate for the rotation of earth, purchased from the York clockmaker Henry Hindley in 1760, for 100 guineas.