956 Objects, 12 Weeks: The Stockman Materia Medica Collection Research Placement

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston Leave a comment

A student post by Rachel McClure, MSc Museum Studies student.

Over summer 2019, I undertook a research placement at the Hunterian Zoology Museum. I was working under zoology curator Maggie Reilly to research and develop an exhibition on the Stockman Materia Medica Collection. Ralph Stockman was Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics at the University of Glasgow between 1897 and 1937. When I started in May, little was known on the history of this large collection.

The collection contains 956 objects, mostly jars with handwritten labels containing minerals, powders, pharmaceutical products, animal and plant material used by Stockman. Over 10% of the collection was unlabelled, unidentifiable brown stuff in a jar. Part of the placement was to remove the collection from the 19 crates in which it had been stored and reorganise it into new storage. The new storage meant the objects could be grouped by type and exhibition storylines could be developed.

It was daunting to research such a large and varied collection. To understand why Stockman collected these particular objects, I read all his published research articles and his notes, dating back to when he was a student. By knowing his research interest in nutritional diseases, it became clear why the collection contained over 60 jars of lathyrus peas and 70 jars of rice. Other times, curiosity brought about research. For example, the dark red, sticky-looking substance labelled “Dragon’s Blood”, which is a resin commonly used as a dye but used as a cure-all in traditional medicine.

Throughout the project I slowly gathered more information on Stockman and the origins of the collection through previous correspondences and his obituary. Stockman is described by friends as a patient yet stubborn man, with a keen interest in beekeeping later in life. The collection was completed by Stockman in 1932 and the labels were all handwritten by him. The obituary revealed one of the main questions I had about the collection: why did Stockman do it? Stockman wanted to build a museum of materia medica and therapeutics, and his belief in the value of this museum was such that he paid for the upkeep himself, refusing university funding. By the end of the placement I was strangely fond of Stockman and his collection.

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