Rotunda Museum, Scarborough
1829 Governance: Local authority Scope: Geology & Palaeontology, plus some local history Visited: Autumn 2015
was a chill and foggy morning when I arrived in Scarborough and went
looking for the Museum. 'Is there a local history museum in
Scarborough?' I asked the young woman on duty at the front desk. 'No,
this is it', she replied helpfully. I hesitated a bit as I am really,
really interested in rocks only to a very limited extent, but
decided to carry on beyond the shop, and was glad I did.
Rotunda is a wonderful relic of a bygone age. A grandiose and
breathtakingly ugly Classical drum of Harkness stone, it sits above the
gardens and gazes out to the North Sea, when that's visible. The Museum
owes its existence to William Smith, whose insight that the same rocks
contained the same sorts of fossils and could thus be dated by
stratification opened the way to the modern science of geology;
released from debtor's prison, Smith came to Scarborough, where the
local landscape provided him with ample scope to explore his ideas.
Smith secured local patronage and set up the Scarborough Geological
Society which gathered the collection and arranged the construction of
the Museum to house it.
But it's still just rocks. Or it would be without a massive restoration and refurbishment programme in 2006-8 which produced a museum full of delight and fascination, and striking beauty. An 'orientation' gallery with some animated films which are a bit disorientating
for anyone over the age of 12 leads into a primeval realm of fibreglass
dinosaurs and real specimens (including a relatively
recently-discovered plesiosaur skeleton), and then you ascend to the
great glory of the Rotunda - the dome gallery. Lined with its original
restored Victorian display cabinets, the dome houses not just
geological and palaeontological specimens but machine models, looted
relics of Empire, portraits of Yorkshire scientific dignitaries, and a
violin. Above the tiered cases is the dome itself, from which light
gently filters like a fall of feathers past coloured glass. It's so
beautiful it brings tears to the eyes, and I only regret I can't give
you more than a hint of it here.
This is more than just rocks. This is rocks made to sing like angels.