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William Hamilton and his passion for fire.

 

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was an antiquarian, a great collector and vulcanologist. In 1761 he entered parliament as MP for Midhurst, Sussex and in August 1764 he was appointed envoy-extraordinary to the court of Ferdinand IV, in Naples. In between his formal duties Hamilton used his energies in and around Naples, collecting art, for which he had an insatiable love of.

 

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Shortly after his arrival Hamilton developed a great interest in volcanoes, 'earning a contemporary European reputation as the modern Pliny and the professor of earthquakes'. (DNB) At the time, volcanic activity and atmospheric electricity were thought to be connected and Hamilton owned electrical equipment as pioneered by Franklin. Mount Vesuvius erupted several times whilst he was in Italy, particularly in 1767, 1779 and 1794, and on each occasion he made careful observations. He collected rock and soil samples, sending back numerous specimens to London, a number of which survive in the collections here in the Natural History Museum. He used equipment such as a telescope and thermometer to make careful scientific field notes and would disseminate his findings to the scientific community. His work was among the earliest attempts to record systematically the changing shape of the summit of a volcano about to erupt.

 

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Campei Phlegræi is Hamilton's best known work and includes more than fifty spectacular hand-coloured illustrations. Pietro Fabris, an artist living in Naples was commissioned and trained by Hamilton to sketch the volcanoes of Southern Italy, eruptions, lightning and other natural phenomena. The two of them ascended Vesuvius twenty-two times in four years, often at great risk. As a result of its publication volcanoes became a popular subject in art and poetry and to warrant a visit as part of the grand tour. He would give tours round the volcanoes and at least one image depicts one such visit with royalty.

 

Sir William Hamilton's private life is best remembered for his second wife's (Lady Emma Hamilton) infamous affair with Lord Horatio Nelson.  Hamilton died in London on 6th April 1803, with Emma and Nelson at his side.

 

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History Of Geology Group (HOGG)

 

Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting

 

April 4th - 5th, 2011 at the Natural History Museum

 

The History of Geology Group (HOGG), a group affiliated with the Geological Society of London, will be holding a conference about Geological Collectors and Collecting.  The conference is timed to coincide with the Christies sale of Travel, Science and Natural History artefacts and is open to all.

 

This two day event will include talks, exhibitions, workshops and behind the scenes tours on topics of interest to collectors of geological material of all kinds, including books, maps, minerals and fossils.

 

A full programme and a registration form are available for download from the HOGG website or from Nina Morgan on ninamorgan@lineone.net

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The Conjuror's bird and the NHM Library connection
The Conjuror's Bird (2005) written by Martin Davies is a novel set both in the 18th-century and the present day. The book was researched here at the NHM Library and mixes both fact and fiction.
It follows Joseph Banks and his un-named mistress, and the hunt for a missing bird specimen originally given to Banks.

The book refers to the NHM Library because the only remaining evidence for the lost bird, Turdus ulietensis or Bay Thrush, is a painting by (Johann) Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794) made during Captain James Cook's second voyage (1772-75). Georg accompanied his father (Johann) Reinhold Forster (1729–98) on the voyage as his assistant. His father was the Naturalist on board and Georg drew from his descriptions.

This painting is held in our Zoological collections (Forster plate no. 143/ original plate no. 146) and is available to view via the NHM Picture Library.

The novel refers to the modern-day characters coming to visit the Library in order to view the plate and look at some Banks biographies (page 75).
Davies also includes some notes about the actual painting and missing bird specimen on pages 307-308.

Angela Thresher, Information Assistant

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The latest edition of Evolve, the Museum's quarterly magazine, is now on sale!

 

Once again we have another great show of articles relating to the Library's collections. A piece by Judith Magee, our Library Special Collections Curator, relating to the new Images of Nature Gallery opening in the New Year. (See our previous blog Images of Nature Gallery.) Alison Harding, Assistant Librarian, tells us about Frederick Du Cane Godman and his legacy to the NHM collections, whilst Karolyn Shindler, NHM Scientific Associate, continues her fasinating series on Richard Owen.

 

Members of the Museum receive Evolve as part of their Membership. But non-members can buy the magazine in our Museum shops (£3.50) or subscribe online.

 

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The Natural History Museum is about to open a new permanent art gallery where our amazing collection of Natural History related artwork will be displayed to the public for the first time.

 

The Images of Nature Gallery display will consist of a permanent exhibition of some of the Museum's oil paintings and themed exhibition of watercolour artwork. The theme will change on an annual basis and the collections will be rotated a number of times during this period.

 

The first temporary exhibition will reflect our collections of Chinese artwork.

 

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   Verity Clarkson (Information Assistant) measuring some of the                            

                     artwork selected for the first display                                               


 

A young Chinese artist, who recently won the competition to create a piece of contemporary art for the opening of the gallery, has already started getting familiar with the collections and the work of curators in the scientific departments.

 

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            The artist being filmed in the Botany Library researching the

                     John Reeves collection of Chinese artwork

 

The Images of Nature Gallery opens in the New Year. We will keep you posted!

 

Armando Mendez (Information Assistant)

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Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) - the snowflake man

 

Whilst it's not quite time to be thinking or even wishing for snow, 145 years ago the "Snowflake Man" aka Wilson Bentley was born and each and every year he would excitedly wait for the onset of winter and the first snowfall.  Born in Jericho, Vermont in 1865, Wilson Alwyn Bentley became the first person to photograph snow crystals and in doing so, demonstrated that "no two snowflakes are alike".

 

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A talented musician, he grew up on a farm where he laboured hard and nurtured a keen curiosity and interest in the natural world. It was the gift of a microscope on his fifteenth birthday that was to start an obsession with all things microscopic and in particular the beauty of snow crystals; "the building blocks of snowflakes" (Blanchard, 1998).  Bentley spoke of snowflakes being the "miracles of beauty" in that "every crystal was a masterpiece of design; and no one design was ever repeated" and so ultimately when a snowflake melted, the design would be lost forever.

 

By modifying a bellows camera and a new microscope, Bentley caught and photographed thousands of snow crystals and in doing so was to become a pioneer of early photomicrography. With his camera-microscope assembly set up in the family farm's woodshed, he would go out in every snow storm he could to collect snow crystals worthy of photography and then rush back to photograph them (being very careful not to breathe on them so they wouldn't melt!). Quite remarkably, Wilson at the tender age of nineteen was to produce the world's first photomicrographs of snow crystals.

 

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This volume of 355 vintage micro-photographs of snow crystals was purchased by the Trustees of the Museum in 1899.  Accompanying some of the pages there is reference to the date of which "great storm" the photographs were taken in, the outside temperature and also the wind direction; others contain notes on the crystallography and structure of the crystals. The original labels of these notes have been pasted in at the rear of the volume. One label even contains a Knoxville post mark dated 9.30PM, April 15, 1899.

 

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Interestingly, Bentley never copyrighted his work and sold many of his glass plates to schools and colleges for a minimal price in order to share the wonders of what he had recorded.

 

Andrea Hart, Assistant Librarian

 

References & further reading

 

Bentley, W. A. (1899) A series of twenty-one sets of (355) micro-photographs of snow-crystals taken during the winters of 1885-1899, Vermont USA. 74 leaves.

 

Bentley, W. A. (1903) Studies among the snow crystals during the winter of 1901-02, with additional data collected during previous winters. Monthly weather review and annual summary, Vol.30, pp.607-616.

 

Bentley, W. A. & Humphreys, W. J. (1931, cop. 1962) Snow crystals. New York: Dover Publications. 227pp.

 

Blanchard, D. C. (1998) The snowflake man: a biography of Wilson A. Bentley. Virginia: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company. 237pp.

 

Jericho Historical Society : The Official Snowflake Bentley website. Accessed 27th September 2010.

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William Smith (1769-1839), a National Treasure!

Our Library blog will give us the opportunity to highlight some of the gems in our collections, particularly those which are large or delicate and therefore difficult for us to bring out for visitors to the Library.

One of the largest items in our collections is the William Smith geological map.

 

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First published in 1815 under the title: A delineation of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland: exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names.

Smith revolutionised the study of geological time as the first person to use fossils as a tool for determining the strata of rocks, rather than their composition. As a result he earned the nickname William 'Strata' Smith and the 'Father of English Geology'. His work as a land, mine and canal surveyor enabled him to see below the surface and study to structure of the ground.

The map was produced in a number of formats: in sheets, mounted on canvas and rollers or spring rollers (with or without varnish), or on canvas in a travelling case. Our edition of the latter has kept the best, due to light and dirt being kept away. Many of those who bought the full sized copy and mounted it onto the wall, over time the colour faded, making the geological map pretty useless! The image below shows a section of our best copy put alongside the same section of our faded edition. This section includes the Bristol area which Smith knew very well.

 

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Smith oversaw the hand colouring of each of the maps, signing and numbering each one (see image below). It is believed that around 400 may have been produced and that only 100 may still exist. The map was the first of its kind for this country and a ground breaker internationally. Today’s modern geological maps still owe a lot to William Smith.

 

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Due to its size and fragility we only get Smith’s map out in all it's glory a few times a year, but keep your eyes on the Nature Live events page, the Library regularly teams up with the Palaeontology Department to do a William Smith talk. This also includes a chance to see some of the specimens collected by William Smith himself.

 

Winchester, Simon (2001) The map that changed the world: the tale of William Smith and the birth of a science. London : Viking.

 

Morton, John L (2004) Strata: the remarkable life story of William Smith, the father of English geology. Horsham : Brocken Spectre.

There are more images of the map available via the Picture Library.

 

 

 

Further suggested reading:

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We've just had the pleasure of showing 41 teenagers (16-19yrs old) behind the scenes in the Library. Each year the Museum takes part in the Young Graduate for Museums and Galleries (YGMG) programme and we are always really impressed by their reaction when they see some of the special material we get out for them in the Library. The project gives high-achieving young people from different backgrounds the chance to see behind the scenes in Museums and Galleries across the country. They go to seminars, workshops and open days and are given the chance to complete a two week internship in the institution of their choice.

This year we displayed a mix of gems from our collections including Charles Darwin's manuscript pages of Origin of Species, the Library's oldest book (dated 1469) and designs for terracotta figures drawn by the architect of the NHM, Alfred Waterhouse.

 

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It is always really interesting to see how the group react when they are presented with our treasures and what kinds of questions they ask, and this year was no exception. They were fascinated with the cover of the old book rather than what it contained, particularly the vellum covering and metal hinges, and took pictures with their mobiles! When we showed them the designs by Waterhouse of the Museum building, they promised to make sure they’d have a good look at the animals in the architecture as many of them hadn’t noticed them when they arrived. With the Darwin material, there were many comments on the state of his handwriting.

At one point we had a discussion about how many of them kept personal diaries and how today's 'Darwin' was probably tweeting, blogging and emailing, and therefore in the future there could be less handwritten notes and sketches as they saw in front of them.

A really bright group of teenagers and as always a pleasure to show round (especially when they gave us a round of applause!).

 

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