Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Material Culture and the Artefacts of Science History (Treasures Cadogan, Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In a small, special room tucked away in one corner of the Natural History Museum are a number of significant artefacts from the history of science in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery. After the mineral and rock collection - for which I have a soft spot - this definitely has to be my next most favorite part of the Museum. This is the scientific equivalent of going to the Louvre and seeing the originals of all the works you have ever read about in books - right there in front of you! The museum is complimented by a thorough history and contextualisation of each item (through a series of interactive screens) which are worth your time to read. A lot of importance is placed on this notion of having acquired the original, authentic specimen, but at the same time the "significance" of a scientific artefact in this room depends on what it has done for science. For example, a plant in Linnaneus' book may not be exceptionally special, but because it represents something that has been used to bring scientific understanding forward, it is valuable for that reason. Obviously a lot of information is conveyed through other means (in this day and age when everyone can just google anything), but in the end, I like to think that material culture plays an crucial role in knowledge construction. More than just being a way of representing the scientific knowledge after the event of making a connection/discovery, I like to think that the materiality of these scientific artefacts is what brings us to the point where we can make connections in scientific knowledge.

A few selected highlights:

Dodo Skeleton

This is the Natural History Museum's full and complete dodo bird skeleton. It is actually a composite made from bones from several dodo birds. So in actual fact it may be difficult to determine if this is the archetypal dodo bird. There are no complete dodo bird skeletons to go by. First seen by dutch sailors in 1598, it was to become the symbol of extinction after sailors and their domesticated animals hunted the flightless bird into extinction. In 1662 the last dodo was sighted, never to be seen again; since this was so very long ago, in the intervening years since then, some even considered it to be a mythical creature.

The NHM also houses the famous dodo painting also known as "Edwards' Dodo", as it was painted by the ornithologist George Edwards in 1626. Because there exist no other definitive images of the dodo, Edwards' Dodo is often used as the source for numerous other dodo illustration, and it depicts a particularly fat dodo bird that might be inclined to waddle about. It is debatable that the fat dodo image is a result of these images and paintings being based on a fat captive bird, or a poorly stuffed specimen, or even a dodo puffing itself up as a kind of display.

Archaeopteryx (London Specimen, BMNH 37001)

This is apparently the most valuable fossil in the NHM's collection, and needs no introduction - this is the FIRST skeleton of the Archaeopteryx to be ever found, and it was unearthed in 1861 near Langenaltheim, Germany, and eventually sold to the NHM. It is the earliest known bird (that is universally recognized - there are a few so-called "older" fossils whose authenticity are disputable, but almost everyone can agree that archaeopteryx is likeliest to be the most primitive bird) and this specimen was the first Archaeopteryx ever found by man. The Archaeopteryx specimen provided the first evidence that birds had evolved from dinosaurs. This item is the "type specimen", which means that is it referred to by scientists as the first known description and reference of the animal. There had been an interesting debate on whether the feather should represent the type specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, but in 2011 the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature declared the entire skeleton fossil to be the type specimen, something that apparently generated a lot of discussion and debate amongst taxonomists.

The ONLY piece of Apollo Moon rock that was given to the UK by President Nixon. In order to prove that the US moon mission was a peaceful one, flags of 135 countries were sent up with the astronauts, and fragments from the moon were taken back and distributed on plaques with these flags that had travelled to the moon and back. For some reason I can't quite explain right now this gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Blaschka glass models

The label for this item actually reads: "Glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blascka using techniques no one has been able to replicate." When I read this, I was like, "OH YEAH? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!" Sadly I am not a glass worker. But surely someone else with the ability to work with glass has read this before? COME ON!

Having seen these models, and then the fungi glass models at Uni of Cambridge not long after, I have to admit I never thought there was a thing about making glass scientific models. Just to be sure, I went to check up, and the glass fungi models at Whipple Museum were made by a fungi specialist Dr. Dillon Weston's glass models. Those were made between 1936 and 1953, and seems to have been created because he wanted a beautiful demonstration tool he could show to people and farmers.

Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf made their models about 70 years before that, at a time when it was hard to find good teaching models. They also apparently produced other things like exotic flowers, sea slugs, and all sorts of other animals in glass, and were valued because of their attention to detail. Since glass could keep forever, it apparently represented an improvement over other methods of presentation and preservation. So I am surprised - why are there not more scientific glass models today, or an even more sophisticated glass modelling methods today? (This is something I will need to find out more about...)

A page from Audubon's amazing hand-coloured prints from The Birds of America. John James Audubon is considered one of the greatest bird illustrators. The book itself consists of 433 life-sized paintings of birds, and he dedicated his entire life to this great work - having decided at age 35 that he would go on to draw EVERY BIRD IN NORTH AMERICA. I like this kind of obsession. He had to travel to England because his engravings were so large and they could not be done in America at the time. NHM changes the page every other month to prevent fading to any particular page.

The story of how Audubon's book came to be is also an interesting study of the economics of art and the production of rare books - for example, he apparently did not have any text in the book because it became so extravagantly costly to produce the book that he had try to avoid having to give free copies to public libraries (circumventing legal deposition requirements) in England.


Last year was the centennial of Robert Falcon Scott's epic journey, so we were suitably inundated with a revival of the story and the story has really fascinated me and here, here is the actual egg. One of the five they picked up and hid in their mittens. 2 broke along the way, leaving only 3, and this one is one of the 3 eggs to make it here.

[Alright there were many other great stories in the gallery but I will stop here now and you can go and see them for yourself.]

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