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.


NatSCA Digital Digest – August

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Should I Read?

We’ve got three great NatSCA blogs to read this month. Donna Young, Herbarium Curator at World Museum, Liverpool, writes of her quest to map and document botanical models manufactured by the Brendel Company of Berlin, now found in collections across the world. Be sure to fill in the survey if you have any in your institution.

A blog by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, tells us about the aims and processes behind a new art exhibition at the museum, ‘Evolution as Inspiration’.

Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums, writes about the HLF (or NHLF) funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections, ‘Wild about Portsmouth’.

The Museums Association has published articles covering a range of political issues affecting the sector. Nicky Morgan has become the latest Culture Secretary through the rotating door of cabinet members, and further cuts to local authorities have put museums in Bradford under threat of redundancies and closure. The sector-wide discussions surrounding the decolonisation of collections, human rights and corporate sponsorship continue as Ahdaf Soueif resigns from the British Museum’s board of trustees, citing the museums lack of a ‘clear ethical position’ on such issues.

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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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