Yorkshire’s Rotunda Museum is an architectural gem founded by the father of British geology which is packed with curiosities and dinosaur remains. Stephen McClarence reports.
When his teeth went into terminal decay, Dr William Harland came up with a simple, though not obvious, solution. He carved himself a new set from hippopotamus teeth.
Quite how the bewhiskered Dr Harland, a Victorian inventor, collector and one-time Mayor of Scarborough whose son set up the Harland and Wolff shipyard, came by hippo teeth in 19th century Yorkshire is open to question. Maybe on eBay.
Whether or not, the resulting dentures – grinning with mildly sinister glee – are on display at Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum, one of the resort’s most distinctive buildings.
Housing 5,500 fossils and 3,000 minerals, it encapsulates Regency elegance and would look perfectly at home in Bath, Oxford or Edinburgh. In his definitive guide to Britain’s Best Museums and Galleries, Mark Fisher describes it as “one of the most beautiful and original museum buildings in England”.
Its collection includes the remains of a 130-million-year-old dinosaur from what the National Trust calls Yorkshire’s Jurassic Park. And there’s the perfectly preserved skeleton and coffin of a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age man discovered at Gristhorpe, between Scarborough and Filey.
The domed cylindrical Rotunda, which opened in 1829, was one of the world’s first purpose-built museums. Pulling in 50,000 visitors a year, it stands alongside Valley Bridge and overlooks the South Bay’s beach, where gulls screech and children shriek, and you can sit and take in one of the great panoramas of the British seaside.
The museum’s circular design was suggested by William “Strata” Smith, a geologist whose 250th anniversary is being celebrated this year. A village blacksmith’s son, he settled in Scarborough and is known as “the father of English geology”.
His fame rests on his studies of the British landscape’s layers (strata) of rocks, which inspired him to create the country’s first geological map, an almost psychedelic swirl of colours (the Rotunda has a copy on display, while a rare original can be seen at Scarborough Art Gallery until May).
Less happily, he was imprisoned for debt, his wife went mad and rivals stole his work: no wonder the museum’s bust of him frowns so steadfastly.
The building is an architectural joy. Its staircases spiral like the fossilized shells of Ammonites, long-extinct sea creatures, and a soundtrack of gently washing tides creates a mindfully calm atmosphere.
Run by Scarborough Museums Trust, the museum suggests different things to different people. “Some people say it looks like a pepper pot or a coffee pot,” says collections manager Jim Middleton. “Others say it’s like a giant Tardis, a huge time machine,” counters curator Simon Hedges.
We’re sitting in the top gallery, surrounded by display cases. They offer, as Hedges says, a real “Georgian cabinet of curiosities”.
Apart from Dr Harland’s dentures, there’s the fragment of a shell (the military variety) salvaged from the 1914 German bombardment of the resort, Egyptian statues, an unopened tin of meat abandoned in the Arctic by a British ship in 1825, an 18th century cello, medieval glass and a bronze statuette from the Roman town of Herculaneum, which was engulfed by lava when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD.
Lining the gallery walls is a fascinating, and strikingly beautiful, frieze – a geological panorama of the Yorkshire coast from Redcar down to Spurn taking in Burlington (as Bridlington was once known), Grimston Garth, Kilnsea and Earls Dyke. The various rocks are colour-coded – a chance to sort out your Cornbrash from your Coraline Oolite and your Calcareous Grit.
North Yorkshire has “an incredible coast”, says Hedges. “The fossils practically fall out of the cliff.” It helps explains Scarboreans’ apparent long-term fascination with fossil-collecting. “You just stepped out of your front door and looked for them,” says Middleton.
“And the other week people from another museum wanted some dinosaur footprints, so we took them out and soon found some. It’s easy if you know where to look.” With good reason, this “Dinosaur Coast” has been called “an El Dorado for the geologist and naturalist”.
Beyond dinosaurs, the Rotunda reflects changing attitudes to the natural world. One of Middleton’s favourite items from the collection, for instance, is a great auk egg, one of only around 70 still surviving.
Thousands of great auks, flightless penguin-like birds, once populated the Northern hemisphere. But they were systematically killed for food or for their feathers, which were used to stuff mattresses, and the last great auk was seen in the 1840s. “It was strangled on an island off the coast of Iceland,” says Middleton. “It was being collected to be sold – because it was rare.”
The Great Bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, suffered a similar fate. Often weighing more than two stones, it had such beautiful plumage that it became a popular sporting trophy and is now extinct in the UK. The museum’s stuffed specimen was half of the last breeding pair in Yorkshire; it was shot in 1835 at Foxholes, south of Scarborough.
Middleton suggests that “there’s an unfortunate perception of museums – that they’re just about the past and that they’re dusty and somewhere to go when it rains. But they’re about the continuing past.”
As Hedges says: “We want to be as much about the future as about the past. It’s about blowing the dust and cobwebs away.”
I reckon they’re on the right track. On a previous visit, I shared the Rotunda with a party of quiet, well-behaved and clearly absorbed schoolchildren. “What are they sedated with?” I asked their teacher. “Interest,” he said.
Rotunda Museum: 01723 353665; www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com. Strata, an exhibition of hand-coloured maps by artist Kathy Prendergast, runs at nearby Scarborough Art Gallery (01723 374753) until January 5.