I came across images of fallen logs painted with landscapes and images of the woods from which they might have come.
Fictional forest history painted on the remnants of real forests, a reminder of life on something no longer living, a singular specimen in its own cabinet of curiosity.
Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, those private collections of natural objects that have been described as ‘memory theater’ and which could include anything from antiquities and religious relics to insects and animal bones, were a way of organizing the natural world into human comprehension.
They were an era’s expression of scientific interest and exploration, and for many years, a marker of wealth and education. They were kept for the perusal of the few and the privileged.
Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, amassed a collection of minerals, fossils, plants, insects and other animal life, that he invited fellow writers and thinkers to examine and discuss in private at his Weimar home. A catalogue of this single collection, published in 1849, spans almost 300 pages of single-spaced entries.
The first public museum for natural history was established in 1793 in Paris, during the French Revolution. Building on a royal natural and botanical collection dating back to 1635, the object of the new Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was to conduct scientific research as well as to instruct the populace – quite a departure from the earlier, prestige-based collections.
This seems to me a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie traditions from earlier in the same century, which sought to bring knowledge to a wider public rather than keep it for a select few.
Today, we take for granted many of the massive collections housed by the world’s natural history museums, large and small.
I know I spent many hours in semi-fascination tempered by the dusty boredom of looking at static animals posed in naturalistic attitudes against painted landscapes, birds stuffed in mid-flight, their plumage iridescent and stale, and helmeted beetles on pins.
I felt I was being educated, but to what end? There was usually little context, even with the painted jungles and savannahs of dioramas. I had no real sense of the animals or plants as a part of life.
Now, natural history museums are turning the tables, literally and figuratively. Many are publishing the vast encyclopedia of biodiversity found on their shelves online.
Several projects are well underway to scan the collections gathered over centuries, many of them originally private, digitize their images and information, and make them available to the public – not just to educate, but to be used in open research.
At this point, many of these specimens aren’t just curiosities – they are a last line of existence for life that has become rare, or even extinct. They hold secrets that could only be conceived of in philosophical terms back when many of them were first collected – DNA, ecological webs, life habits, connections.
They can be used to trace industrial development, climate change, and human settlement.
A New York Times article quotes Katja Seltmann, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as saying that each type specimen is “like the Mona Lisa. If an antenna or a leg breaks, all of a sudden, a really large part of information about that organism is gone.”
Like the fallen log creations, these specimens are each windows to an entire world, the world in which they lived.