The History of Natural History Collections

The importance of keeping past works accessible, whether or not they are attractive to crowds or palatable to current taste, ought certainly to be the first concern of any museum, as it is of a library. Everything must be available, or it is as good as dead.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and checkered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. Since the pharaohs, important cultural artifacts have been collected and displayed, and since the pharaohs, access to such institutions has been largely restricted to high society. The Greeks loved a museum. That’s where we get the word. ‘House of the Muses’ is the literal translation. History, astronomy, dance, music, sacred poetry, epic poetry, love poetry, comedy, and tragedy. Sounds like my kind of place.

Education empowers people, and museums, like libraries, prevent the covering up of history. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The Christians knew this, and hence tried to put a stop to museums. The only history worth knowing was the Word. Desecrating cultural objects is a classic move of religious fanatics, and this is a testament of the power these objects hold, and the threat museums pose to authoritarian rule. As DuBois notes, there is always an element of revolution in education. An afternoon in a museum can be more revealing than a decade’s worth of schooling, but before we start fawning over these things, we should spare a thought for how museum collections typically arise.

In the awkwardly named ‘Age of Discovery’ indigenous histories were eradicated as a matter of course. A lot of theft was going on too. Artifacts were pillaged from all over the world and hoarded in private collections. Cabinets of curiosities emerged across Europe during the renaissance and flourished for centuries. Oxford University holds apocryphal claims to the first public museum; the collection of Elias Ashmole was donated to the institution and put on display in 1683. As I write, the collection is alive and well, receiving almost a million visitors a year. European expansionism went unabated throughout the ensuing centuries; during the enlightenment period vast holdings began to be amassed in public and museums and private collections across Europe. With the advent of the 19th century, colonialism ushered in a new era of collecting, and only now do natural history museums enter the fray.

Natural history collections are comparatively young simply because preservation of organic material is far more challenging than the preservation of paintings or sculptures. Preservation techniques have only blossomed in the last few centuries, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that advances coincide with European overseas expansion. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. We have been fermenting alcohol since ancient Mesopotamia, but concentrates specifically distilled to preserve animals have much more recent origins. William Croone of the Royal Society pickled two puppies in 1662 to demonstrate proof of concept. Formaldehyde did not emerge as a commercial preserving agent until the 1890s. Modern methods typically dictate that the specimen is first fixed in formaldehyde, before a step up procedure to gradually transfer to stronger ethanol dilutions, but best practices regarding storage environments, dilution strengths, and buffer solutions are still being argued. Moreover, best practices will likely be context specific: delicate specimens, like fish eggs or frog tadpoles are permanently kept in formalin because it is the better preservative, whereas tissue samples that will be used for genetic analyses are placed directly into ethanol because formalin would degrade the DNA.

Reptiles are much easier to preserve than either fish fry or amphibian larvae. In a time when circumnavigating the globe took months, the ability of reptiles to go long periods without water proved extremely useful. As a result, reptile collections housed in museums are often extensive. Lizards in particular are a seafaring bunch.  Anoles and geckos now have pan global distributions because they make such good stowaways. Museum collections of anoles from various islands have helped to reveal some of the foundational principles of evolutionary theory and shape the laws of biogeography.

Giant tortoises in contrast, proved too delicious to survive long journeys at sea. Hapless individuals stored on their backs provided fresh meat for homeward bound voyages. Indeed it took several trips before even a shell survived the journey to be formally accessioned into a collection. Giant tortoises used to occur on many more islands than the Galapagos, and over-harvesting is largely implicated in their decline. With predicted sea level rise, giant tortoise may one day be driven to extinction in the wild, and specimens housed in collections will be all that remains. Let us hope that history proves me wrong.

History is very important. It tells us that we are not always the good guys. Libraries have been burned, and cultural collections have been ransacked, but sometimes this is matched by the vicious means by which such collections are amassed. Although museums have suffered with a PR problem for time immemorial, their value is incalculable and grows exponentially. These institutions hold immense educational power, but we must acknowledge their roots, and understand the public stake in museum collections. Natural history collections are the foundation of the biological sciences. Darwin’s and Wallace’s generation was the age of exploration, and therefore the age of collecting. Good old fashioned `smash and grab` imperialism. We have assembled these tremendous collections largely by force, the very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.

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