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3 Posts tagged with the collection tag

It's almost a year since I started blogging for the Museum, and as I considered what I should profile for my 12th Specimen of the Month, I inevitably began to reflect on all the amazing specimens I've already written about, those on my list to write about in the future (which, for various reasons, can't be featured today), as well as all the specimens I've yet to even discover exist here.


One of the most incredible things about the Museum is just how many specimens we care for. To describe it by coining a phrase from Charles Darwin (although he was talking about the evolutionary Cambrian explosion, but anyway...), the Museum's collection is full of 'endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'.


So today I thought I would celebrate all the specimens in our collection. All 80 million of them!


As you can obviously gather, not all 80 million are on public display. In fact, only about 0.04% of our total collection is on show in the public galleries. The rest is housed behind the scenes, in specially-built, and often specially-temperature-controlled, storage facilities.


Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:


More than 34 million insects in 140,000 drawers, of which 8.7 million are butterflies and moths.


Some of the modern and historic storage cupboards containing the drawers that house our insect collections.



The collection was boosted in 2010 with the donation of 45,000 weevils of 4,500 different species from Oldřich Vořisek, a private collector in the Czech Republic. Half were new to the Museum, and it included almost 750 type specimens. Pictures © Libby Livermore.


More than 27 million animals, ranging from the smallest fishes and frogs to enormous elephants and blue whale skeletons.


Before Dippy took pride of place, elephants were a dominant feature of Hintze Hall (or Central Hall as it was back then). In this picture from 1924, three elephants can be seen on the main floor, while a further two elephant heads are mounted above the Darwin statue on the stairs.



Mounted heads used to be much more prominent around the Museum in years gone by, as illustrated by this photograph of the balcony of Hintze Hall from 1932 (left). [Note, also, the terrifying location of the glass display cases at the top of the stairs!]

Today, most of our mounted animal heads are kept in storage (right).


More than 7 million fossils, with the oldest dating back more than 3.5 billion years.


One of my favourite fossils is this petrified tree trunk: the wood of a conifer from the Triassic era (250-200 million years ago) has been replaced with the mineral agate.



Another fossil I'm quite fond of, which also has a mineralogical connection, is this ammonite (Parkinsonia dorsetensis), from the mid-Jurassic era (174-166 million years ago): its chambers have been filled by calcite crystals.


More than 6 million plants, algae, ferns, mosses and lichens, 10% of which come from the British Isles.


Our oldest plant specimen is a mounted American hop hornbeam (Carpinus virginiana), which dates to 1740 and was collected just about a mile from here at the Chelsea Physic Garden.



Watch herbarium technician Felipe Dominguez-Santana demonstrate how plant specimens are mounted in this video from 2009. It was filmed around the time that all our herbarium specimens were moved into the then-newly-built Darwin Centre.


More than 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals, of which 5,000 are meteorites.


Here I am reflected in some pyrite in the Minerals gallery.



For some reason this malachite specimen causes innumerable giggles. We don't know why.


And, more than 1.5 million books and artworks in the Museums Library and Archives.


As a book junkie, the Museum's Library collection (of which there are six sub-collections: zoology, Earth sciences, botany, entomology, general, and ornithology at Tring) is a thing of beauty in itself, to me. This is a view from the balcony over the Earth sciences collection, which is in the old Geological Museum building (now the Red Zone), built between 1929 and 1933.



Just a small selection of some of the 540+ copies of Origin of Species held by the Museum's library. We have the largest collection of Charles Darwin's works in the world.


Finally, not officially counted in the 80+ million, but...


The web team's collection of dinosaur toys, totalling 15.


Lolita, Lepidoptera and us

Posted by Amy Freeborn Aug 21, 2014

It's 56 years ago this week that Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in America (55 years in the UK).


What does that have to do with the Museum, you might ask?


Well, the Russian-born writer was also a keen lepidopterist. He published nine scientific papers on butterflies, developed a pioneering theory of butterfly evolution, and even worked for eight years at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology arranging their collection of Lepidoptera.


Such was his love of the winged creatures that he is quoted in a 1967 edition of the Paris Review as saying:

The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new (butterfly) organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

Vladimir Nabokov


His specific connection to the Museum came in the 1960s, when he approached our Entomology Department (now the Insects Division) about a book he was working on called The Butterflies of Europe. It was to include over 700 butterflies and he wanted to illustrate it with photographs of specimens from our collection.


Nabokov wanted the book to be the most comprehensive work on European butterflies ever completed. But alas, it was never completed. The publishers said Nabokov was discouraged by the daunting nature of the task; Nabokov said the publishers wouldn't provide enough money to fund it.


But the legacy of Nabokov's butterfly book publishing dream lives on in the Museum's collection to this day, where a handful of drawers still contain specimens the author requested to photograph, labelled with his name (albeit incorrectly spelt).


The drawers contain butterflies from the Nymphalidae and Hesperiidae families, including half a dozen British species.







Butterflies personally collected by Vladimir Nabokov are housed at the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard and Cornell university museums, the Swiss Zoological Museum in Lausanne, and the Nabokov Museum established in the St. Petersburg house where he was born.


The topic of this blog post is quite possibly the newest specimen in the Museum's collection, as it was just a matter of hours ago that it was catalogued. It's also the first specimen I've played a part in acquiring.


The specimen I am talking about is Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book The Origin of Species, which set out the theory for how new species evolve by the process known as natural selection. But the version of the book that is now officially call number 9C o DAR ORI in our library, and which I am writing about today, is a unique one.


During Darwin's lifetime (1809-1882) The Origin of Species book went through six editions, with various changes, revisions and additions each time. It was originally titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but was shortened to The Origin of Species by the sixth printing.


The Museum's library contains the largest collection of Darwin's works in the world, including 541 copies of The Origin of Species in 43 languages, including Braille.


Today, that number has risen to 542 with the addition of a 'variorum' by graphic designer and typographer Simon Phillipson. Simon's Origin of Species - Evolutionary Edition is a book on the evolution of the book on evolution, if you will. He explains:

It highlights all the linguistic changes Charles Darwin introduced to the book since its first publication in 1859, and presents the changes alongside the complete sixth and final edition that was published in 1872. So now you can compare all the alterations Darwin made to each of the editions.



This typographic-inspired book has 964 pages, plus a fold-out Tree of Life diagram, and is printed on thin, bible-like paper. On the left hand pages is every punctuation mark, word, sentence and paragraph that has been removed from, edited, or added to Darwin's classic opus over the past century and a half. The right hand pages contain the full text of the sixth edition with words highlighted in metallic bronze ink where they correspond to the text on the left.

You see a lot of tightening up on statements and alterations of words to make an argument more factual or to emphasise its significance, for example. There are also a lot of grammatical and spelling changes too. The thing that struck me the most is that when reading this you really start to get a sense of the man behind the book: where he doubted his ideas, or struggled in phrasing particular sentences due to religious pressure. For example the reference to a god or the creator dips in and out throughout the editions. You can also see how over time he took his own voice out of the book, making the wording more factual, or formal, than personal.



The book was made possible thanks to a crowd funding campaign last summer that raised more than five times Simon's initial goal. But the idea for the Evolutionary Edition first began around 2009 while Simon was studying for his graphic design degree in London.

I was listening to an adaptation of the Origin of Species as an operatic performance by Hotel Pro Forma and Swedish musical group The Knife, and that started to get me thinking about how I could also reinterpret or present this book in a new way. This led me to start reading into the background and history of Darwin, and I became curious about the different editions that he wrote.


It is important to mention that comparing the text of different editions, such as Shakespeare or Darwin, is not a new or original concept. But with my background as a graphic designer and typographer, I wanted to take this variorum concept and create my own interpretation. I wanted to present all the changes Darwin made in a visually engaging and interesting typographic way which people would be able to pick up and explore for themselves.


I, along with 779 other backers, agreed that Simon's concept indeed sounded engaging and interesting and pledged my support. I have since been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Origin of Species - Evolutionary Edition, and carefully following Simon's updates on the long and involved process of making his grand idea a reality. When I told Judith Magee, the Museum's Library and Archives Special Collections Manager, about the book she was intrigued and keen to receive a copy to add to our Darwin Origin of Species collection. Simon says:

It goes without saying that this is an incredible honour and also one of the biggest surprises. I certainly never expected anything like it. I still very much consider myself to be a Darwin novice! The support for this project has been completely overwhelming. In all honesty it is hard to put into words, but it is down to all the great support from all my backers of this project who have all played an important role in getting the book to sit amongst the largest Darwin collection in the world.




See a first edition of Darwin's book in our Treasures Cadogan Gallery.