The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.

Abstract

Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

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Bill Pettit Memorial Award 2021

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Manchester Museum.

Do you have a great project in mind that supports the conservation, access and use of natural science collections? Well, NatSCA’s Bill Pettit memorial grant for up to £3000 is here to help!

We are looking for applications for exciting new projects for 2021. Terms and conditions and contact details to discuss your project can be found on our Awards and Bursaries page.

To apply please fill out the application form.

Projects previously supported:

2020/2021:

The Last Passenger: Conservation of the SS Great Britain Cormorant Skeleton (Awarded £1424)

Curating, Digitising and Displaying a Unique Historic Odontological Collection (Awarded £2100)

2019/2020:

University of Liverpool Zoology Redisplay Project (Awarded £1840)

Leo Conservation Project (Awarded £1105)

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Top 10 Blogs of 2020

Written by Jennifer Gallichan, NatSCA Blog Editor; Curator (Vertebrates/Mollusca), National Museum Cardiff.

2020 – what a year! Well done on getting through it, and a heartfelt thanks from me for all of the fantastic blog contributions this year. We saw a marked increase in online engagement when the first lockdown hit, with more of you reading and engaging with our blog page than in any other year. I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles, and I hope you have too.

To reflect on the year, here are your Top Ten most read NatSCA blog articles from 2020. Covid obviously features, as well as a strong focus on discussions surrounding decolonising collections. I am also pleased to see that there is a healthy dose of solid natural history conservation practice this year. I know I have taken great solace from the fact that no matter what was happening in the world, time seemed to stand still the minute I entered the stores. I hope that focusing on the practicalities of caring and conserving our collections has been a healthy and hopefully reassuring distraction from the craziness surrounding us all.

10. Frequently Asked Questions about Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. Attempting to deal with some of those tricky taxidermy questions.

Photo of the taxidermy Gannet (Morus bassanus) waiting patiently(!) to go on display before the event. Photo by author.

9. Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth. Exploring how our museum spaces and experiences might be very different in the future.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

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Telling the Truth About Who Really Collected the “Hero Collections”.

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.

Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.

Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.

The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds

Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.

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CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.

Sorting through lemur muscle samples at National Museums Scotland © National Museums Scotland

CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.

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