The Reputation and Importance of Greene’s Museum

Image: “View of Mr Greene’s Museum at Lichfield”. Stebbing Shaw, History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, Vol.1 (London, 1798). Originally published in the Gentlemen’s Magazine (1788).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In 1788 the Gentlemen’s Magazine published an article about Greene’s collection, accompanying it with an E.Stringer’s engraving in which the museum rooms are shown. It brought the museum to national recognition. Although Richard Greene was obviously much more eminent as a collector than as an apothecary-surgeon, his museum contained a number of medical machines, which probably would have attracted Darwin’s professional attention including:

An artificial Thorax of Glass by which is shewn the Action of the Lungs in Respiration.

A Machine for explaining the Circulation of the Blood, by means of a coloured Spirit in Glass contorted Tubes, invented by Signor Nicodemi of Florence.

A neat model in Mahogany of the double Ventilator invented by the late Dr Hales.

Dr Stephen Hales (1677-1761) was best known for his studies of the circulation of the blood and measuring blood pressure. His work on air gave him the idea of the danger of breathing ‘spent’ air in enclosed places, and he invented a ventilator which improved the survival rates on ships, in hospitals, and in prisons. Darwin shared Hales’ views on fresh air. His spontaneous speech addressed to Nottingham mechanics was preserved by Anna Seward:

You might not know that to breathe fresh and changed air constantly is not less necessary to preserve health that sobriety itself… If you would not bring infection and disease upon yourselves, and to your wives and little ones, change the air you breathe, change it many times a day, by opening your windows.

There were anatomical specimens –“ the Kidnies of the Human Body, the Heart of a Man, the Heart of a Woman, that of a Child, etc.” Some of them were prepared by Greene’s son Thomas.

Richard Greene died in 1793. After his death the collection was broken up. The main part of the curiosities was bought by Walter Honeywood Yate of Bromsberrow, near Gloucester. For several years he kept them together as a museum and made many additions to it. In 1801 he published a Catalogue dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks and the Earl of Leicester. Yate’s Catalogue is also accompanied by a list of benefactors, where most of the same names are mentioned.

Greene’s grandson Richard Wright, who was a surgeon at Lichfield, later bought back most of these items, but after his death in 1821 the collection was again scattered.

Today some isolated exhibits can still be found in various collections around the country and even the world. The impressive Musical Altar-Clock which is shown in the illustration by E.Stringer, is now in the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath. Some of the pieces of armour and arms are probably in the Tower of London. One of the 15th century manuscripts is at the Huntington Library, in the United States. Some minor items survived in Lichfield and can be seen at Erasmus Darwin House there.

In 1776, Dr Samuel Johnson wanted to bring Boswell to Lichfield, to show him “genuine civilised life in an English provincial town”. The description rang true. The city of the magnificent St Chad’s cathedral, Lichfield was associated with the great collector Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), the great actor David Garrick (1717-1779), and with Samuel Johnson himself. The poetry of Anna Seward and Erasmus Darwin aroused an interest in literature there. The first meetings of the Lunar Society brought to Lichfield a taste of Philosophy, Politics and Science.


Greene’s rich collection of curiosities clearly reflected the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, and corresponded with the research of the celebrated scientists and inventors. Its ability to satisfy many various interests added much to this feeling of civilised life. Greene’s museum really opened a window to the wide world for the people of Lichfield. Through its collections they became acquainted with leading contemporary scientists and their methods, and with many of the great discoveries, ideas and achievements of the age.

Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst, Josiah Wedgwood and Greene’s Museum

Image: Portrait of Matthew Boulton. Boulton was a leading Birmingham industrialist and member of the Lunar Society. Family links with Lichfield and his friendship with Erasmus Darwin, meant that he visited the city frequently. Greene included contemporary products amongst his collections, some of which were made by the Lunar men.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Among the scientific instruments there were several, made and possibly donated by the members of the Lunar Society: “A triangular Pyrometer invented by the ingenious Mr Whitehurst, late of Derby. A mercurial Thermometer in a glass Case, with an engraved silvered Plate, by Mr Boulton of So-ho, near Birmingham”. Inspired by Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton had become known for producing accurate scientific instruments, particularly thermometers, since the early 1760s. Darwin wrote: “Why won’t you sell these thermometers, for I want one also myself”.

Although Josiah Wedgwood is not mentioned among the benefactors, the products of Etruria were well represented in Greene’s collection:

A cast in Terra Cota by Mr Wedgewood of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, from the gem in possession of the Duke of Marlborough.

A Cast by Mr Wedgwood of Mark Anthony.

A Terminus of Heraclitus in Terra Cota, by the ingenious Mr Wedgwood of Etruria.

By 1786 the collection had been enriched by portraits of Admiral Hood and Lord Rodney, “12” high, finely executed in Mr Wedgwood’s black hard composition, gilded and bronzed”.

Joseph Wright of Derby and Greene’s Museum

Image: Joseph Wright (1734-1797), A Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery (1766). Oil on Canvas. Wright’s painting is a celebration of scientific knowledge and the interpreter of this knowledge, the philosopher. The latter dominates the picture and explains the working of the sun and planets via an orrery, a mechanical representation of the solar system. The audience is transfixed by the demonstration, which may be showing the causes of eclipses. Light floods the scene, illuminating the philosopher and the faces of the observers. Frequently, this famous picture is interpreted as a visual expression of the Enlightenment, which Wright portrayed in its Midlands context.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

In the catalogue of 1782, a number of objects are mentioned, which clearly correspond with the famous paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, influenced by the interests and experiments of the Lunar Society. It is known that the subjects of A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (1766) and The Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) and are related to the lectures given in Derby in 1762 by the Scottish scientist James Ferguson (1710-1776). Wright probably saw Greene’s museum many times when visiting Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield, and examined the scientific instruments on display. They included: “A Model of Double Pump, worked by rare-faction and gravitation…”.  A more detailed description of the object was made later, by the next owner of the collection:

An Air Pump of the largest sort, with Apparatus, and various appendant Articles: Brass Hemisphere shewing the Air’s external pressure; Bell proving there is no sound without Air; Lead weight with Bladder, proving there is Elasticity in the Air; Copper Bottle, Beam and Stand, for accurately weighing Air…

An “Orrery, by Thomas Wright, instrument maker to His Majesty…” Thomas Wright (1711-1786), an astronomer and instrument-maker, was the first to propose a view of the Milky Way in which the Sun is not centrally located. He described the Universe as systems of spheres and rings of stars. These objects might have given to the artist some extra visual impressions for his famous paintings. In the following years Greene’s collection of scientific instruments was supplemented by a Celestial and Terrestrial Globe by the instrument-maker Leonard Cushee, a reflecting Telescope and a double reflecting Microscope.

Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society and Greene’s Museum

Image: Erasmus Darwin M.D.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

When describing the objects, Greene mentions the donors in only a few cases, but an impressive list of benefactors accompanies the first and the second editions of his catalogues. They provide excellent information about the visitors to the museum and the circle of Greene’s acquaintances.

Members of the Lunar Society regularly visited Greene’s museum. Among its benefactors were Matthew Boulton, Brooke Boothby, Erasmus Darwin (who continued to donate objects to the museum even after moving to Derby.  He was later mentioned as “Darwin Erasm. MD of Radbourne”), his sons Charles and Robert, Thomas Day, James Keir, John Whitehurst, and Dr William Withering.

In 1756, when the young doctor Erasmus Darwin arrived in Lichfield, Richard Greene was the sheriff of the city, so he was probably one of the first Lichfield acquaintances of Darwin, apart from Lady Gresley and Canon Thomas Seward to whom he had letters of introduction. It was Darwin’s good luck to find in Lichfield a collection of objects, which was able to provide him with many excellent materials relevant to his various scientific interests.

Robert Darwin travelled in Holland in 1784, and then spent the spring of 1785 in Paris. He visited Lichfield after return to England. “A silver crucifix in which is the Host brought from France by Dr Robert Darwin” is mentioned in the Catalogue of 1786.


It seems that Greene’s museum and the Lunar Society significantly influenced each other. The collection offered them excellent material for their research.

They were particularly interested in rocks, minerals and fossils, which were not only objects of aesthetic or commercial interest, but evidence of how the earth was formed.

By the 1780s, the collection of minerals and fossils at Greene’s museum had significantly increased. A number of ‘Lythophites, or impressions of Plants in Iron Ore’ was given by Mrs Darby of Coalbrookdale (possibly Abiah Darby (1716-1793), the widow of Abraham Darby II). Greene’s museum also included a  ‘fine collection of Dudley fossils called Pediculi Marini – Marine shells found near the Center of the Kingdom, in the Chalk pits’, samples of lava from Derbyshire and Vesuvius, and Derbyshire minerals and fossils.

These might have been given to the museum by Erasmus Darwin, or John Whitehurst. Darwin studied fossils passionately, and collected Derbyshire minerals for more than 20 years. In 1767 Darwin and Whitehurst together travelled in Derbyshire and probably explored the Blue John caverns near Castleton. In a letter to Matthew Boulton, Darwin described his excited feelings: “I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth, and seen Wonders and learnt much curious Knowledge in the Regions of Darkness…” One of the semi-precious stones in Greene’s collection is accompanied by the following remark: “Derbyshire Fluor, call’d Blue-John, but by Mr Boulton of the So-ho Manufactory, Root of Amethyst”.

The contents of Greene’s collection gradually changed, giving more room to materials reflecting the special interests and occupations of the “Lunaticks”. Erasmus Darwin kept alive the memory of Richard Greene and his museum long after moving to Derbyshire in 1781. He wrote to his son Robert: “I am and have been from their infancy acquainted with all the apothecaries there… I remember Mr Green of Lichfield, who is now growing very old, once told me his retail business, by means of his show shop and many coloured windows produced him £100 a year”.

Samuel Johnson and Greene’s Museum

Image: Portrait of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born and educated in Lichfield and had a great interest in Greene’s collections.  John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield (London, 1805).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The success of Greene’s museum was such that it was open for six days a week.

Samuel Johnson visited it several times, and in 1776 J.Boswell wrote:

We went and viewed the museum of Mr. Richard Green, apothecary here, who told me he was proud of being a relation of Dr. Johnson’s. It was, truely, a wonderful collection, both of antiquities and natural curiosities, and ingenious works of art. He had all the articles accurately arranged, with their names upon labels, printed at his own little press; and on the staircase leading to it was a board, with the names of contributors marked in gold letters. A printed catalogue of the collection was to be had at a bookseller’s. Johnson expressed his admiration of the activity and diligence and good fortune of Mr. Green, in getting together, in his situation, so great a variety of things; and Mr. Green told me that Johnson once said to him, “Sir, I should as soon have thought of building a man of war, as of collecting such a museum.” Mr. Green’s obliging alacrity in shewing it was very pleasing.

Later Samuel Johnson presented to Greene the inkstand with which the Dictionary of English Language was written.

Curiosities in Greene’s Museum

Image: “Ancient Alter-piece, preserved in the Museum of Mr Greene at Lichfield.”

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The recent discovery of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) was represented by “Part of a Copper Boiler, found in a Subterraneous Kitchen at Herculaneum, presented by Dr Solander; the other part in the British Museum; near 3000 years old”. The Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander (1733-82) was one of Linnaeus’ greatest students. He came to England in1759, and soon he became a Librarian and Keeper of the Natural History collection at the British Museum. Along with Joseph Banks, he was a botanist on the Endeavour in 1768. It is interesting, that Solander never visited Italy. So it is possible that the item from Herculaneum was given to him by the artist William Parry (l742-l791) who travelled in Italy in 1770-75, and shortly after his return to England painted the famous group portrait of Dr Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks and the Tahitian Omai. (In 2002, the painting was jointly acquired by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery).

In the Catalogue of 1786, a “fragment of a Rock of granite, found in a morass, near the bay of the Gulph of Finland by Count Carbury and brought to Russia for the purpose of erecting a statue of the Emperor Peter the Great” is described. In spite of some factual mistakes in this description (the rock was actually found in Russia, about 20 miles from St Petersburg), this item reflected an important aspect of Russian contemporary history. The Empress Catherine II commissioned an equestrian monument of Peter the Great from the French sculptor E.-M. Falconet. The huge granite rock called the Thunder-stone which serves as the pedestal for the statue was discovered in 1768 on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, in the vicinity of the village of Lakhta. It took nine months to move the enormous monolith weighting 1,600 tons to its final site. Four hundred people, using at first rollers, and then on a barge built especially for this purpose laboured to bring it to the capital. A medal commemorating the transportation of the rock was issued by the St Petersburg Mint. However, it was only 12 years later that the completed monument was unveiled.

An exciting story accompanies “a Turkish Musket, the Stock, Lock, and Barrelrichly ornamented, and mounted with silver’ – it was ‘taken from the Turks by Count Orlow the Russian General; afterwards exchanged with an English Gentleman for a fine horse, the Gentleman presented it to the Right Honourable Lord Paget, who gave it to the museum”. Count Alexis Orlov (1737-1807) was one of the leading figures in the coup, which brought Catherine II to the throne. For his splendid victories in the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Empress rewarded him with a land in the steppe region of Central Russia (Voronezh). It was here that he established the Khrenovsky Stud where the famous breed of horse, the Orlov Trotter, was created. Orlov’s knowledge of horses, his wealth and his prestige in the highest political and social circles enabled him to acquire the finest horses from Eastern and European countries. So probably this exchange was for the benefit of all – Orlov obtained a fine horse for his stud, and the Turkish Musket was admired by many visitors to Greene’s museum.

Curiosities in Greene’s Museum

Image: “Miss Seward”. John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield(London, 1805). Anna Seward, the Lichfield poet donated “curiosities” to Greene’s Museum.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The third large group of Greene’s materials consisted of “curiosities”. Most of them were very modern and clearly reflected the new inventions, scientific and geographical discoveries of the Age of Enlightenment with its passionate interest in the Universe and Nature; the achievements of industry, science and the arts, political and international events.

In the 1780s, a “large assortment of curious productions brought from the Southern Hemisphere” were to be seen not only in Ashton Lever’s museum in London, but also in Lichfield. Some of them were given to Greene by Ashton Lever, others were presented “by the Right Honourable the Earls of Uxbridge and Donegall.”

A “Feathered necklace called Erei worn by the females of Sandwich Island” and some other objects were presented by Anna Seward. Her Elegy on Captain Cook published in 1780 brought her wide public recognition and the nickname “The Swan of Lichfield”. David Samwell (1754-1792), a poet and naval surgeon, who accompanied Captain Cook on his last journey and left a detailed description of Captain Cook’s death, presented to Anna Seward a number of curiosities. Later she gave many of them to Greene’s museum. She was deeply hurt when the Society for Arts and Sciences awarded Greene a commemorative medal in honour of Cook, at the same time forgetting her. In 1790 she wrote to Samwell:

“So little value did the Society which struck a medal in honour of Captain Cooke, set upon my poem on his death, that, while they avowedly presented one to every person, who had taken public interest in his fate and his virtues; while they gave Mr Green of this town a medal, merely for having displayed, in his museum, some relics of those illustrious voyages, they took no notice on me.”

A year later she again wrote to Samwell:

“It is curious that your bounty to me enabled Mr Green to display in his museum those Otaheitean curiosities, whose exhibition obtained him a medal. I presented him with a part of your present, and was doubly glad that I had done so, when I found his displaying them rewarded by a distinction which cheered and delighted his honest benevolent heart.”

The American continent was represented in the Greene’s museum by significant collection of natural specimens – snakes and birds, and also by ‘curiosities’ of native
Americans: “tomahawke, wampum, maucassons (Indian shoes)” or “models of several Cherokee Indians, in their proper habits”. The Rev. Thomas Seward donated an “American pipe – the bole of brown baked Earth, the Tube a slender piece of wood, covered with the Bark of a tree, 5 feet 2 inches long, the mouth piece Agate and Amber”.

Natural History in Greene’s Museum

Image Erasmus Darwin’s bookplate. Darwin added a Latin motto to the family arms of three scallop shells, E conchia omnia, which translates as Everything from shells. The motto expressed Darwin’s belief that all life was descended from a single ancestor. Shells provided one of the most important collections of natural objects in the museum and Darwin’s scientific investigations benefited from Greene’s collection.

Image from: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield. Photograph: David Remes (2003)

The second significant group of materials consisted of various specimens of natural history which directly corresponded to Erasmus Darwin’s scientific interests. Darwin lived in Lichfield from 1756 to 1781 and the spectacular shells in the museum might have added something to Darwin’s inspiration for his famous motto “Everything from Shells”. Many of them were probably donated by Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788) of Manchester, who himself was a famous collector of natural objects. All three catalogues of Greene’s museum are dedicated to Lever, ‘from whose noble repository some of the most curious of the rarities were drawn’.

Sir Ashton Lever began his collection about 1760 with seashells. Gradually it became one of the richest private collections of natural objects, including live animals. The first public display took place in April 1766, in Manchester. Following its success, Lever’s museum opened to the public at Alkrington Hall near Manchester in 1771.
In 1774, Lever moved to London, and next year his Holophusicon opened to the public in Leicester Square. Captain Cook was so impressed by Lever’s collection that he gave his Australian items to the museum. It became the first place in Europe where Australian specimens were displayed. The style of Greene’s dedications to Ashton Lever suggests their mutual sympathy and close friendship: “To you, my kind friend, by whose encouragement I was instigated, and by whose good offices I was enabled, to commence Virtuoso, I, once more, dedicate a descriptive catalogue of the Lichfield Museum.” (1782). Finally, in 1786, the dedication described Ashton Lever as “illustrious and generous Benefactor immortalized by his own matchless Museum”.

Many of the well-known scientists of the time gradually appeared among Greene’s correspondents, friends and benefactors. The third edition of Greene’s Catalogue was dedicated, as well as to Ashton Lever, to “Mr Pennant, immortalized by his various, faithful, and splendid publications, in Antiquities and Natural History”. Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), the author of British Zoology and A Tour in Wales was one of the leading naturalists of the 18th century. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was probably involved in the decision to send HMS Endeavour to the Pacific in 1768. A close friend of Joseph Banks, later he included the information received from Banks about Australian fauna in his History of Quadrupeds (1781) and the fourth volume of his Outlines of the Globe (1798).

In the catalogue of 1786, Daines Barrington (1727-1800) is mentioned among the benefactors. A lawyer, antiquary and naturalist, he was particularly known for his observations of birds, which were described in his books Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds and Essay of the Language of Birds (1791). In 1781 he attempted to explain the origin of fossils.

On a copy of the second edition of the catalogue (1782), which is preserved at the William Salt Library, Stafford, there is Greene’s autograph: “From R.Greene to his worthy and much esteem’d Friend and benefactor Mr J.White, London”. Through Rev. John White, both Richard Greene and Ashton Lever knew his brother, the celebrated naturalist Gilbert White (1720-1795), the author of the Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1788), which consists of letters written to Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. Gilbert White also collected natural specimens, and generously gave some to both museums.

British Antiquities in Greene’s Museum

Image: “A Draught of the Curious Clock in the possession of Mr Ricd Green of Lichfield”, one of the largest artefacts in Greene’s Museum. The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Vol. III, July 1747,

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The first group contained “antiquities” of British history – historic objects, and items, which had belonged to various historical characters. Greene regularly provided The Gentlemen’s Magazine with descriptions of such rarities, often accompanying his articles with drawings made by himself or commissioned from local Lichfield artists.

His collection included a number of Roman coins; plaster casts of coins, medals and gems; crucifixes and medieval manuscripts. Among the memorabilia there were “a pair of Kid mittens embroidered by Gold worn by Mary Queen of Scots”, or “A piece of Muslin, spriged with flowers in various coloured Silk; the work of Lady Raleigh in the Tower of London, during the imprisonment of her husband Walter”. Roger Kemble, the father of famous actress Sarah Siddons, gave to the museum “Gloves worn by King Charles I”. A crossbow found at Bosworth Field was described in an article for The Gentlemen’s Magazine, with a drawing by the Lichfield artist E.Stringer. The magnificent Musical Altar Clock was written up in an article for The Universal Magazine of 1747.

Both Richard’s brother, the Rev. Joseph Greene (1712-1790), the headmaster of Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School, and also a neighbour, Peter Garrick, the brother of the famous actor, provided the collection with a number of items related to Shakespeare’s Jubilee in Stratford, organised by David Garrick in 1769.

Richard Greene and 18th Century Museums

Image: Portrait of Richard Greene. Stebbing Shaw, History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, Vol.1 (London, 1798).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In June 1793, The Gentlemen’s Magazine informed its readers of the death at Lichfield, in his 78th year, of “Mr Greene, surgeon and apothecary, and one of the aldermen of that city. He was the proprietor of a museum that merited and attracted the notice of the antiquary and curious of every denomination; to the collection of which he dedicated the principal part of his life, and which, free of charge, was open to the inspection of the curious.”

Richard Greene established himself as an apothecary in Lichfield in the early 1740s, and at about the same time he started his collection of curiosities. Although his was not the first and not the only museum of curiosities in England, it was still quite a rare institution. The only similar collection open to the public was the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The collection of Sir Hans Sloan (1660-1753) was given to the nation in 1753, but it only opened as the British Museum in 1759. Among the items in Greene’s collection, it is possible to distinguish three general groups.

A Window on the World: Richard Greene’s Museum of Curiosities in Lichfield

Image: “An East View of the Cathedral Church of St Chad’s & Close of Lichfield; Taken from Stow-pool near St Chad’s Church. 1745. Stebbing Shaw, History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, Vol.1 (London, 1798).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Text: Olga Baird

Image Captions and Summary: Malcolm Dick


Richard Greene created his Museum of Curiosities in late 18th century Lichfield. By contemporary museum standards of collection and display, Greene was an eccentric antiquarian, but he provided a window on the world for those who were enthusiastically investigating, accumulating and classifying knowledge. The museum contained historical artefacts, works of art and industry, geological and biological specimens and items representing cultures from around the world. The museum was well-placed. It was located in Lichfield, the “cultural capital of the Midlands” and benefited from gifts provided by the intellectuals who lived in or near the cathedral city. They included Matthew Boulton, Brooke Boothby, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Johnson and Anna Seward. The museum enabled individuals to study its contents and draw conclusions and theories from their observations. Erasmus Darwin in particular must have learned a great deal from the collections. Greene’s Museum of Curiosities was an integral part of the West Midlands Enlightenment.