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39 Posts tagged with the library_item_of_the_month tag
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Cherry Kearton (1871-1940) and his brother Richard (1862-1928), pioneered the use of wildlife photography. The brother’s grew-up in the Yorkshire Dales, and developed a great interest in the wildlife that surrounded them. They experimented with photography and devised many ingenious ways to camouflage themselves to get very close to animals in their natural habitat. Despite the need to use explosive magnesium flash powder and unwieldy equipment, their shots were amazingly natural and they went on to produce a large number of wildlife books together, illustrated by Cherry’s photographs.

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Glass plate negative from the collection

 

At a time when hunting was fashionable and nature conservation was in its infancy, the brothers recognised the need to respect wildlife and to capture it through photography rather than by hunting down trophies. In ‘Wild Nature’s Ways’ (1904) the brother’s make a plea that collectors take no more than one bird egg of any species; “remember that to help in the least degree to accomplish the extinction of anything beautiful and interesting is a crime against future generations…”(p.210).

 

Cherry was responsible for some of the first motion pictures of animals in the wild.  He travelled extensively in Africa, North America, India and Australia, becoming a prolific film maker. This resulted in a large collection of photographs, negatives and film, some of which were presented to the NHM Library by the Kearton family in 1990.

 

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                           Examples of some of the material from the collection, including a metal travelling box.

 

As illustrated here, the collection is in a very fragile state and not suitable to handle, but the library hopes one day to gain funding for its preservation and full curation. Until then, it is not available to the public, but the BBC reproduced some of the original cine film (c.1915-1920) for ‘Nation on Film’ in 2006, and this is available to view on DVD in the Library. The NHM Library also holds many of Richard and Cherry's books, which may be viewed by appointment. These include;

 

• With Nature and a Camera : Being the adventures and observations of a field naturalist and an animal photographer, illustrated from photographs by C. Kearton. (1897).

 

• Our rarer British breeding birds : Their nests, eggs, and summer haunts. (1900).

 

• Wild Nature's Ways : With 200 illustrations from photographs taken direct from nature. (1904).

 

• Wild life at home : how to study and photograph it (1907).

 

• Wild life across the world (1913)

 

• A naturalist's pilgrimage, by Richard Kearton (an autobiography) (1926)


• Cherry Kearton's travels, by Cherry Kearton ; illustrated from photographs taken by the author (1942)

 

Please see our catalogue for more details; http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/library/index

 

If you wish to visit the Library, please contact us to make an appointment 020 7942 5460 or Library@nhm.ac.uk

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The oldest book held by the Library was printed in 1469. It is the Naturalis Historiæ written in AD 77-79 by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). This 'Natural History' consists of 37 sections and is an encyclopedia of learning and art connected with nature. Pliny studied original authorities and used excerpts to compile a range of sections in the encyclopedia covering mathematical and physical description of the world, geography, ethnography, anthropology and human physiology, zoology, botany, pharmacology, mining and mineralogy.

The library copy was printed in Venice by Johan and Wendelin of Speyer and was one of the first classical manuscripts to be printed. The volume consists of 355 leaves, with a full page having 50 lines. The text contains some illuminated and coloured lettering.
It is an example of an incunabula, an early book printed before 1501.

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Linnaeus, sex and botany

 

Whilst the study of plants would appear a harmless scientific pursuit, during the late 18th century much controversy was caused due to the allusion to its sexual nature and the theory that plants, like animals, reproduced sexually. Although the sexual system of classification put forward by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1768) in his 1735 publication Systema Naturae was not the first to propose a sexual hypothesis in plants, he was the first to establish a complete system of classification on it.

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Above : The original drawing by Georg Ehret (1708-1780) to illustrate Linnaeus' sexual system. It was first published in Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum, first edition, 1737.

 

Linnaeus' theory was based upon counting the numbers of male and femlae reproductive organs inside the flowers. Descriptions such as "the calyx is the bride chamber in which the stamina and pistilla solemnize their nuptials" and analogies between humans and plants in statements such as "the filaments the spermatic vessels" and "the anthers the testes" served to highlight the reproductive floral parts of the plants.

 

The work was met with some resistance and by some deemed unnatural, in particular the German botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck (1686-1755) who claimed it to be "repugnant and immoral". Smellie, in his chapter on The sexes of plants in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (p.653, 1771) wrote that "a man would not naturally expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany" and that "men or philosophers can smile at the nonsense and absurdity of such obscene gibberish ; but it is easy to guess what effects it may have upon the young and thoughtless".

 

For others however such as Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), it inspired poetry :

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This verse from the Love of Plants (Darwin, 1790) is the description of tumeric where "one male and one female inhabit this flower ; but there are besides four imperfect males, or filaments without anthers upon them, called by Linnaeus eunuchs".

 

Although many were shocked by the comparison with human sexuality, it was a very practical system of classifying plants and became accepted by renowned botanists including Nikolaus von Jacquin (1727-1817).

 

Linnaeus, Ehret and the frontispiece

 

The original illustration used to demonstrate Linnaeus' sexual system and published in the first edition of his Genera Plantarum in 1737 was drawn by Georg Ehret (1708-1770). Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Ehret's unique style and clarity of plant illustration was sought by specialists for the purposes of illustrating taxonomy and classification. This made him a perfect choice for Linnaeus as the scientific accuracy and precision of botanical illustrations are paramount in order to be able to distinguish the plants from other species and to enable correct identification. It also helped that Ehret considered himself and Linnaeus to be "the best of friends" and that when Linnaeus first showed him the new method of examining the stamens he understood it easily enough to produce the "tabella" (Ehret, 1894-5).

 

The drawing, completed by Ehret in 1736, shows the division of the vegetable world by Linnaeus into 24 classes. The 24th class were the cryptogams (plants without flowers) and in keeping with the male/female analogy were referred to by Linnaeus as "Clandestine marriage, Cryptogamia".

 

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Above : The 24th class (the Cryptogams) indicated by the letter "Z" along with Ehret's name and the date of the drawing.

nb. The letters J and Y were omitted from this alphabetical arrangement to represent Linnaeus' 24 classes.

 

Whilst the brilliance of the colour remains after almost 300 years, the illustration is also interesting as on the verso there is the pencil outline of the drawing and when held up to the light is the exact image of the watercolour image on the front. The illustration therefore has been conserved and framed in such a way so it possible to see through the paper on both sides.

 

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Above left : the completed watercolour image

Above right : the reverse image in graphite

 

 

References and further reading

 

Darwin, E. (1790-91) The botanic garden; a poem, in two parts : Part 1. Containing the economy of vegetation ; Part 2. The loves of the plants, with philosophical notes. J. Johnson : London. 2 vols.

 

Ehret, G. D. (1894-95) A memoir of Georg Dionysius Ehret. [Written by himself, and translated, with notes by E. S. Barton]. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. 1894-95. pp.41-58

 

Fara, P. (2003) Sex, botany and empire : the story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. Icon Books : Cambridge. 168 pp.

 

Jarvis, C. (2007) Order out of chaos : Linnaean plant names and their types. Linnean Society of London and Natural History Museum : London. 1016 pp.

 

Smellie, W. (1768-1771) Encyclopaedia Britannica : or, a dictionary of arts and sciences compiled upon a new plan &c. A. Bell and C. MacFarquhar : Edinburgh. 3 vols.

 

Stern, W. T. (2004) Botanical Latin. David & Charles : Devon. 546 pp.

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Megatherium, the skeleton of the giant sloth

 

It is always a pleasure when the Library has an opportunity to bring out some of the more unusual material from it's collections. We have just had a behind the scenes visit from the NHM Members, and on this occasion our largest piece of artwork was the centre of attention.


Megatherium by the artist George Johann Scharf (1788-1860) measures 2.46m x 5.7m. It was commissioned by Professor Richard Owen (1804-1892), the renowned comparative anatomist, zoologist, palaeontologist, lecturer and first superintendent of the Natural History Museum.

 

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The giant ground sloth of South America had been known since the end of the 18th century. It existed during the Pleistocene, between 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago, and appears to have died out, not because of change in climate, but because of the actions of humans. It had long shaggy fur, foot long claws and long arms. It was huge - as big as an elephant, and was originally thought to be a quadruped. It was first described by the famous French comparative anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1796, on the basis of drawings of a mounted skeleton sent to him from Madrid. This skeleton had been brought over from the Spanish colonies in South America in 1785. After that, the remains of this gigantic sloth were avidly sought after by museums all around the world.


The Natural History Museum (then part of the British Museum) purchased Megatherium material in 1845. It had been collected from Lujan, near Buenos Aires, in Argentina in 1837. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons had Megatherium bones in their collection from the bed of the Rio Salada, south of Buenos Aires.


The watercolour held in the Library collections is likely to have been produced for purely scientific purposes rather than for display. Putting down on paper a reconstruction, using the information they had at the time, would have facilitated further debate and discussion. The image is in two tones. It is believed that the sandy colour denotes those specimens that Owen had to work with at the time, and the grey areas show those parts of the animal that were missing, with therefore assumptions being made. It was originally in one piece

 

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It was Richard Owen and Reverend Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856) who realised that it could not possibly have been a quadruped, that in fact it reared up on its massive legs, pulling down branches of trees to feed its great bulk. In 1849 plaster casts of bones from both collections were put together to form a composite skeleton. A small number of missing bones were modelled to fit: mainly ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton was mounted in the manner suggested by Owen and Buckland. The original Madrid specimen had been mounted on all fours like an elephant.


The huge cast of Megatherium is currently on display at the end of the NHM's Marine Fossil Reptiles gallery, and has been on constant display since the museum opened in 1881.

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As a result of it's enormous size and delicate nature, we do not bring out this treasured piece of artwork very often. I would encourage you to become an NHM Member and to sign up for the array of events they offer.


For more information visit the Members section on the NHM website.

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By Sarah Sworder (Information Assistant)

 

The story behind Lithographiae Wirceburgensis and its accompanying objects is both comical and tragic.

 

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Johann Beringer (1667-1740) was a physician and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Wurzberg, Germany. He also collected natural curiosities and had a keen interest in the origins of fossils. Beringer was a victim of a calculated hoax designed to discredit him. The hoaxers succeeded in damaging not only Beringer’s reputation but also managed to destroy their own. Beringer employed three students to hunt for curiosities on his behalf. It was from Christian Zanger and brothers Niklaus and Valentin Hehn that Beringer came to acquire these ‘fake fossils’.

The hoaxers were two colleagues of Beringer: J. Ignats Roderick, a professor of geography and algebra at the University of Wurzburg, and the Honorouble Georg Von Eckhart, privy councillor and librarian to the Bishop’s Court and University. The reason Roderick and Eckhart devised the scheme was because Beringer was ‘so arrogant and despised them all’. It was via Beringer’s students that Roderick and Eckhart would ensure the safe delivery of the stones. Some of the fossils, carved out of limestone, were found by the Hehn brothers on Mount Eibelstadt, whilst others were given directly to Beringer by Zanger. Zanger had acquired these straight from Roderick who had carved them and then paid Zanger to polish them.

 

Beringer ‘wholly, publicly committed himself to the belief that fossils were merely the capricious fabrications of God, hidden in the earth by Him for some inscrutable purpose’, and as a result of this belief he went on to publish his book Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (1726).  Prior to the publication of the book the perpetrators of the hoax began to feel guilty, and attempted to sabotage the book’s publication by circulating rumours that the stones were fraudulent. Beringer dismissed these claims as he believed that Roderick and Eckhart were trying to rob him of his great discovery.

 

When you look at the fossils it is difficult to see how Beringer was so easily duped. The figures are of bizarre lizards, spiders with webs, even shooting stars and smiling amphibians. These were things that just do not seem possible to form so perfectly as fossils. Please see the photograph below of the casts held in The Natural History Museum Library to judge for yourself.

 

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Shortly after the publication of his book, Beringer discovered another so called fossil with his name carved into it. It suddenly struck him that it was all a hoax and he tried to buy back as many copies of his book as he could find. Beringer took the hoaxers to court in an attempt to restore his ‘lost honour’. The court ruled that the hoaxers Roderick and Zanger were to be banished from Wurzberg, and Eckhart lost his post and privileges of access to the archives of the Duchy. The Hehn brothers were pardoned from having any knowledge of the hoax. Beringer continued in his role at the University of Wurzberg and even went on to publish further books which received academic accreditation.

 

However, Beringer was devastated by the humiliation the stones had brought him, and he died penniless after continuing to buy up as many copies of Lithographiae Wirceburgensis as he possibly could.

 

Some of Beringer’s ‘Lying Stones’, as they became to be known, still exist today, and are housed at the University Museum, Oxford, as well as in Wurzburg.

 

References and further reading

Jahn, Melvin (1970), 'Beringer, Johann Bartholomaeus Adam', Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2, New York, pp 15-16.

Mallot, John M (1982), 'Dr Beringer's fossils: a study in the evolution of scientific world view', Annals of Science, 39, London, pp 371-380

Pain, Stephani (2004), 'Histories: Johann Beringer and the magic stones', New Scientist, 25 December 2004, pp 74-75

Taylor, Paul (2004), 'Beringer's iconoliths: Palaeontological fraud in the early 18th century', The Linnean. 20, pp 21-31

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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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The Chalmers-Hunt Collection - Chasing after butterflies

A surprising and interesting collection for a library to hold - the Chalmers-Hunt Collection - is not, as is usual, a collection of books, but rather of objects. The objects in question number around 300 and relate to the art of insect collecting. This posting will take a look at the collection as a whole.

 

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Though perhaps overlooked it is nevertheless one of the most unique and unusual Museum collections to be found in the UK and comprises of an eclectic mix of ephemera, with some items acting as the last surviving example of its kind. This collection was the focus of a library project to conserve, audit and transport these fragile items.

 

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Items range from the practical and mass-produced to the more exotic, one-of-a-kind home-made instruments and equipment that were employed by natural historians from time to time. It clearly charts the development of insect collecting and the tools of the trade from the Victorian era to the early 20th Century. The idea to conserve these transient items for prosperity came from the eminent entomologist - John Michael Arthur Blake Chalmers-Hunt (1920-2004). J. Michael Chalmers-Hunt diligently collected these instruments over a long period of time before considering the NHM the proper repository for such a collection and kindly donated it to the Library.


This type of equipment was known in the early days of natural history collecting as the 'weapons of the chase'. This activity gained in popularity along with the thirst for knowledge of the animals and plants that help to make up our world. The instruments used to collect items and specimens developed and became more elaborate. The Victorian Age became known as the 'Golden Age of Natural History Collecting in Britain'. It was seen as not just a hobby but a quest for understanding. Natural History collecting on a large scale started to develop formally in the 17th Century - epitomised by the founding of the Royal Society in the 1660's. Superstitious beliefs began to be substituted for more objective, scientific ones and collecting for your own personal 'curiousity cabinet' became something of a fashion.

 

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With a seemingly endless mixture of materials and sizes the collection is made up of such items as nets, pins, collecting boxes, rearing cages, lamps, preservation instruments, measurers, setting boards, magnifiers and so on. These items are a great example of how insect collecting was achieved a hundred or more years ago; an age where amateur-expert entomologists roamed the countryside, readily equipped with home-made nets and personalised boxes to catch and study their mini beast of choice.

 

There are more images of this collection available via the Picture Library.

References and further reading

Chalmers-Hunt, J. M. (J. Michael)., 1994. Entomological bygones or historical entomological collecting equipment and associated memorabilia. Archives of Natural History, 21(3), pp.357-378.

Salmon, Michael A., 2000. The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. Colchester: Harley Books.

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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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