The Land of the Oran-utan

Written by John Wilson, Curator (Vertebrate Zoology), World Museum, Liverpool

This article was first published as a blog for National Museums Liverpool, 16 August 2019.

150 years ago Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about “the land of the orang-utan” and sent specimens to Liverpool.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature.

Although best known as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin, The Malay Archipelago firmly established Wallace as one of the greatest natural history explorers.

Title page of the first edition of The Malay Archipelago published in 1869, 150 years ago.

The Malay Archipelago is a vivid, first-person account of Wallace’s travels, studies and natural history collecting in Southeast Asia. During 8 years Wallace travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,000 specimens. Orangutans feature prominently in the book’s title, and chapter four is largely devoted to Wallace’s adventures with orangutans in Sarawak, Borneo.

Wallace wrote: “… one of my chief objects in coming to stay at Simunjon [a river in Sarawak] was to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts, to study his habitats, and obtain good specimens of the different varieties and species of both sexes, and of the adult and young animals. In all these objects I succeeded beyond my expectations, …”

The orangutans of Borneo are now generally considered to be a single species (Pongo pygmaeus), with a single subspecies found in Sarawak. However, Wallace and his contemporaries thought these animals comprised multiple species, including “Simia satyrus” and “Simia morio”.

Chapter four recounts Wallace’s collection of around twenty orangutans, about ten of which he shot himself. Wallace also recalls fostering a female baby orangutan orphaned after her mother was shot out of the canopy. Wallace’s emotional attachment to the “poor little thing” (page 68) provides a dramatic counterpoint to his hard-headed hunting of adults.

Among the orangutans collected by Wallace in Sarawak, he specifically mentions: the first full grown specimen he obtained (a female) (page 64); a “giant” male with a perfectly preserved skeleton (page 76); and the “only other male specimen of Simia morio” (page 87); as being in the “Derby Museum”. World Museum was originally called the Derby Museum in honour of the 13th Earl of Derby whose natural history collection founded the Liverpool public museums.

In total five orangutans obtained by Wallace in Sarawak had arrived at World Museum on the 18th March 1857 purchased through Wallace’s London agent Samuel Stevens. These were one adult male Simia satyrus (stuffed skin and mounted skeleton); one adult female Simia satyrus (stuffed skin and mounted skeleton); one juvenile Simia satyrus (stuffed skin), one adult male Simia morio (stuffed skin and articulated skull), and one adult female Simia morio (stuffed skin and articulated skull).

Of these specimens the Simia morio male and female skulls can still be found in the World Museum collection. The skulls are labelled in pencil “S. morio”.

“Simia morio” female skull collected in Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1855. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Simia morio” female skull collected in Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1855.

“Simia morio” male skull collected in Menyille, Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in August 1855. The cranium and mandible are inscribed with “S. morio” and the catalogue number 31. The cranium was likely sectioned into two for the “ascent of man” display. At this point the mandible became separated from the cranium and was accessioned into the collection as a “chimpanzee”. They have now been reunited. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

For some fortunate reason the male Simia morio skin, shipped in a casket of arrack, was never mounted as a taxidermy specimen so didn’t go on display in the gallery. It remains folded (now dry) as originally received demonstrating Wallace’s procedure for preservation and packing.

“Simia morio” male collected in Menyille, Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in August 1855. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

It is likely the other skins and mounted skeletons were prepared for public display and lost in the museum’s Upper Horseshoe Gallery during the blitz of 3 May 1941. The orangutans appear to have been mounted similarly to those collected by Wallace in Sarawak and now in the Natural History Museum, London.

Mammals in the museums’ Upper Horseshoe Gallery before the blitz, including on the left what appears to be a juvenile and adult orangutan.

Wallace’ reputation has fared well in the century since his death: “an adventurer who does not present himself as adventurous; he is a Victorian Englishman abroad with all the self-assurance but without the lordly superiority of the coloniser; he is the chronicler of wonders who refuses to exaggerate…”. However, there is an impetus to recognise the local people who enabled Wallace’s achievements – the Dayak, Malay, ethnic Chinese and other indigenous peoples of Sarawak. Later this year the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore will unveil a statue of Wallace and Ali, Wallace’s “faithful companion of almost all my journeyings among the islands of the far East”.

As a researcher and lecturer working in Malaysia I attended the 2013 Alfred Russel Wallace- His Predecessors and Successors conference in Kuching, Sarawak. Like Wallace 150 years before, I was eager “to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts”. I visited the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a sanctuary run by the Sarawak State Government for semi wild orangutans which have been injured, orphaned or kept illegally as pets.

Myself and orangutan at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak in November 2013.

As recently brought to public attention in Iceland’s “banned” TV advert, habitat loss and hunting have decimated the orangutan population of Borneo (read the hard science: Global demand for natural resources eliminated more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans).

The Malay Archipelago has inspired scientists, naturalists and novelists for 150 years, from Joseph Conrad to David Attenborough. Let’s hope it can help inspire the current generation to do everything they possibly can to ensure the survival of the critically endangered orangutans of Borneo.


I would like to thank the Earl of Cranbrook for kindly providing his research into specimens collected by Wallace, Wan Faridah Wan Jusoh for information on locations in Sarawak, Muhammad Dzaki Safaruan (Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) and Barry Clarke for information about the Wallace and Ali Statue and Amanda Naaum for photos from Semanggoh Nature Reserve.


Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

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Survey of Flowering Plants Stored in Fluid Preservatives Across European Herbaria

Written by Ranee Prakash, Senior Curator (Flowering Plants), Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London.

A survey of flowering plant material stored in various fluid preservatives across several European herbaria/institutions was carried out a few years ago. The feedback received from the survey is shared and shows that the majority of the herbaria use 70% IMS (industrial methylated spirit) to store their collections.


The seed plant collections (stored in various liquids such as formalin, some have unknown liquids, and some mention poison) form a relatively small yet significant part of the botanical holdings at NHM (Natural History Museum). They include some important material dating back to the mid 1800’s and type collections such as the world’s largest flower Rafflesia arnoldii collected by Robert Brown. However, these wet collections have remained a somewhat underused asset and are in dire need of curatorial attention.

In continuation to this aim, a survey of flowering plants stored in spirit collections across various institutions in Europe was carried out in 2012 so as to assess what preservatives other institutions were using and what would be the best method to store the collections at NHM for posterity. The objective of this survey was to gather information on:

  • How big the spirit collection is
  • How the collection is used
  • Which liquid preservatives the flowering plant collections are stored in

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Invertebrates In Vitro

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

I’m not sure why, but people really seem to love Blaschka models.

Beccaria tricolor [sic] Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland.

Beccaria tricolor [sic], Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland. Image by Paolo Viscardi, 2018

They are the subject of a surprisingly large number of enquiries at the National Museum of Ireland — Natural History (AKA the Dead Zoo), where I look after the zoology collections.

If you’ve not heard of the Blaschkas, they were a father and son company of lampworkers based in Dresden, who supplied museums and universities around the world with glass models for teaching and display. Between 1864 and 1890 they made mail-order models of invertebrates (alongside glass eyes and medical equipment), then from 1890 until 1936 they worked exclusively for Harvard University on the Ware collection of glass flowers.


Bouquet of Blaschka glass flowers made in 1889, gifted to Elizabeth C. and Mary L. Ware. Now part of the Harvard Glass Flowers exhibit. Image by Bard Cadarn, 2018.

At the Dead Zoo we have a particularly large and comprehensive collection of the invertebrates, with around 590 models acquired in lots between 1874 and 1888. I say ‘around’, because many of the models are made up of multiple parts, with different developmental stages, enlargements and details that are classed as elements of the same model.

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Stories from Pressed Plant Books in the Botany Collections

Written by Katherine Slade, Curator: Botany (Lower Plants), Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW)

This article was first published as a blog for AC-NMW, 17 May 2019.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

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Brendel Plant Model Survey

Written by Donna Young, Curator of Herbarium, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

Inspired by the project led by the Corning Museum of Glass, which looked at holdings of Blaschka models, I am embarking on a project to map and document collections of Brendel botanical models worldwide.

The objective of this project is not only to provide a useful resource to be used in the curation of anatomical models, but to document their past and present use – promoting and bringing awareness of these collections to new audiences.

Brendel model Papaver rhoeas
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Anatomical Models

The nineteenth century was the golden age of scientific discovery, and as the century progressed, the teaching of science in schools, academies and museums evolved to reach a new mass public audience. Science was no longer the exclusive preserve of an elite few.

Changing teaching techniques promoted this transformation and pedagogical inquiry was seen as a constructive and involved way of learning. The written and spoken word was supported by the use of visually instructive wall charts and classroom demonstrations. The introduction of interactive teaching models encouraged audiences to understand nature using new and original perspectives.

Botanical models were used to illustrate and demonstrate plant anatomy. Unlike living material, their use was not restricted by seasonal availability and they were ideal for demonstrating small or ephemeral details which are difficult to preserve.

In 1827 Louis Auzoux established his workshop in France, manufacturing human and veterinary anatomical models from papier-mâché. The company also produced botanical models, which were widely distributed to universities and schools in France, particularly to support the expansion in teaching agricultural science.

Brendel model Centaurea cyanus ‘dissected’
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

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The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

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