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Behind the scenes

4 Posts tagged with the library tag
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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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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...

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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No description of fairylike perfection is too saccharine for the hummingbird. They live in a world of blossoms, sweet nectar, and the untainted freshness of everlasting spring

 

Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo

 

If I was forced to choose a favourite specimen or exhibit at the Museum, at best I could probably narrow it down to a top three. Among the group would definitely be the beautiful case of hummingbirds on display in the Birds gallery.

 

Standing over six feet tall and containing at least 100 of the tiny, shiny little birds, the case is typical of the Victorian-era exotic displays sought by natural history and curiosity collectors.

 

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One of my favourite Museum items: the hummingbird case in the Birds gallery, with close-up showing the shimmering plumage of the birds inside.

 

Unfortunately the origin of this magnificent case is not clear. Our best guess is that it came from collector William Bullock's personal museum, the contents of which was sold at auction in 1819.

 

In the document, 'A companion to Mr. Bullock's London Museum and Pantherion,' his hummingbird case is listed as 'the finest collection in Europe', and of the birds it is said that 'precious stones, polished by art, cannot be compared to these jewels of nature'.

 

But if you demand provenance with your hummingbirds, then look no further than our collection of John Gould cases. Gould was a gardener turned taxidermist, illustrator and publisher whose big break came when he was commissioned by King George IV to mount the monarch's pet giraffe.

 

Ever commercially minded, in 1851 Gould self-financed an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds to capitalise on the footfall of those attending the Great Exhibition. The birds were presented in 24 custom-built cases which revolved and were specially lit to show off the iridescence of the hummingbirds' feathers.

 

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A picture from the Illustrated London News showing Gould’s 1851 hummingbird exhibition.

 

Among the reported 75,000 people who attended during the run of the Great Exhibition were Charles Dickens, and also Queen Victoria who wrote in her diary:

It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds, their variety, and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.

 

After Gould's death, the Treasury provided a grant to the Museum to purchase his hummingbird cases, 3,800 unmounted hummingbird skins and 7,000 skins of other birds, which were divided between South Kensington and Tring.

 

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Three of Gould's 24 hummingbird cases purchased by the Museum.

 

For a time, the cases were displayed on our Central Hall balcony, but as special collections librarian Paul Cooper explains, at one point they almost met a terribly unbefitting demise:

They were rescued them from being thrown into a skip in the 1970s. Presumably they were thought out of fashion, out of date, not needed... but the Library saved them when the Museum was going to get rid of them.

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A watercolour showing Gould's hummingbird cases on display in one of the Central Hall balconies (left), and a c. 1932 photograph showing a couple of cases precariously placed at the top of the Central Hall stairs where our giant sequoia now stands (right).

 

Six of the hummingbird cases now reside behind the scenes in the Rare Books Room in the Library at South Kensington and one other is in Walter Rothschild's library at Tring.

 

It is hard to believe that these cases of hummingbirds, which can excite such romantic infatuation, could ever be considered surplus to requirements. In the words of Gould himself (the brackets are mine):

The pleasure I experience each time I see (our) hummingbird (case) is as great at the present moment as when I first saw (it).

 

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Six of the hummingbird cases now resident in the Library's Rare Books Room.

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In my ongoing quest to uncover the most fascinating and curious specimens and stories from behind the scenes at the Museum, I recently came across this lovely tale that I think epitomises the inquisitiveness, perseverance and patience that it takes to be a good scientist. Let me recount it for you:

 

In 1973 Dr Peter Whitehead, head of marine fishes at the Museum, began a personal quest that would soon take on international (and interdisciplinary) significance.

 

Whitehead, an expert in clupeids - herrings, anchovies and their numerous relatives - was attempting to track down the original painting of a fish called a piquitinga. The painting was used as the basis for a woodcut that accompanied a description of the species by the naturalist Georg Marcgraf in Historia naturalis Brasiliae in 1648. Marcgraf's brief Latin description and poor quality woodcut was then used by Carl Linnaeus and later taxonomists, who variously identified it as a herring or as an anchovy.

 

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The woodcut of piquitinga from Marcgraf's Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648). Detail was lost from the original painting when the book illustrations were made.

 

 

Whitehead was determined to get to the bottom of the classification once and for all. He knew that Marcgraf's original paintings were part of a collection known as Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae given to Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. The Elector's library formed the basis of the subsequent Royal Library, which later became the Prussian State Library in Berlin.

 

During the Second World War, allied bombing made Berlin unsafe, so hundreds of boxes of material were removed from the library and allegedly sent to a Benedictine monastery in Silesia called Grüssau. And that's where the trail went cold.

 

The materials were not returned to Berlin after the war, and the monastery (now known as Krzeszów) nor the major libraries in Poland knew anything of their whereabouts.

 

Whitehead admitted that 'the search took on something of an obsession'. Indeed, there are two bulging folders in the Museum's archives - known as the Grüssau file - filled with reams of correspondence relating to the matter.

 

During his years of detective work Whitehead discovered that as well as the natural history artworks he was looking for, the Prussian State Library had also held many important musical manuscripts by artists including Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn. These too were evacuated during the war and had not been seen since. He said:

For a year or more I was quite unaware that I had joined one of the biggest and hitherto more frustrating searches for treasures lost during the last war.

Whitehead called on the Polish Ministry of Culture to help, and despite an 'immediate search of all Polish libraries', nothing was found. Undeterred, he 'redoubled his efforts' and began contacting Polish libraries himself.

 

The breakthrough came in March 1977 with a 'matter-of-fact' letter from Jan Pirozynski at the Jagiellon Library in Krakow: 'I am very glad to be able to tell you that the problem of the lost manuscripts has been cleared up. I have been authorised to tell you that the manuscripts exist... I hope this will be satisfactory to you for this moment'. Understandably, Whitehead was 'absolutely delighted' to hear of the 'miracle'.

It was not until September 1979 that I was able to visit the Jagiellon Library. A trolley was wheeled in bearing seven large volumes. Lifting one of the Theatri, the librarian opened it at a marked page: "There!" he said with a flourish, "There is your piquitinga!" It was a magnificent oil painting and immediately resolved all doubts - it was the small herring Lile piquitinga.

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The oil painting of piquitinga from Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae, vol 1, p161. Remarkable for its realism, it immediately proved that Marcgraf's fish was the herring Lile piquitinga.

 

 

Also contained among the many boxes Whitehead was responsible for tracking down were original scores, in whole or in part, of Beethoven's 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies and his 3rd piano concerto; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream; various Bach cantatas; and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and more than 90 other pieces which represented nearly a quarter of all his works known to survive in manuscript.

 

So that is where Brazilian fish and brilliant composers meet - in boxes in a Polish library, undiscovered for more than a generation.

That Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Beethoven's 9th and piquitinga should reappear after almost 40 years in wooden crates was unbelievable.