This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.
- Cabinet of Natural History publications
- Cabinet of Natural History blog
- Fungus Hunt 2016
- See the news archive for photos and reports from earlier Cabinet events
Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. You are welcome to bring your lunch with you.
Organised by Edwin Rose (edr24).
Lent Term 2017
|23 January||Katrina Maydom (HPS, Cambridge)
Piety, diligence and learning: knowledge of American naturalia in Abraham Hill's commonplace books
|How was knowledge of American flora constructed in early modern England? Influenced by a commitment to benefit the commonwealth and better understand God's creation, Abraham Hill (1633–1721) drew on classical and contemporary writers and reported experience to develop his knowledge of materia medica new to England. As a merchant, founding Fellow of the Royal Society and a Commissioner of the Board of Trade and Plantations, Hill occupied a unique position to draw on extant and commissioned sources of information about naturalia from the English colonies. By examining his ten volumes of little-studied commonplace books, we can gain significant insights into how he investigated nature and negotiated different authorities' knowledge claims to understand the properties of 'new world' plants.|
|30 January||Sara Peres (HPS, Cambridge)
Preparing for doomsday: vulnerability and the contemporary history of genebanking, 1970–2008
|In January 2008, the first shipments of samples of agricultural seeds were deposited within the reinforced concrete walls of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. This iconic repository, sometimes dubbed the 'Doomsday Vault', has a particularly interesting function as a 'safety back-up' for other existing genebank collections. Its existence therefore shows that, despite the ideas of security implicit in the 'bank' metaphor, the loss of genebanks, and of material within them, are substantial concerns of plant conservationists and policy-makers.
In this talk, I explore the contemporary history of genebanking by investigating how actors conceptualized the susceptibility of genebanks to catastrophes great and small, from conflict to lack of funding, along with proposed solutions to these risks through 'safety duplication', culminating in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Concerns with the appropriate way to ensure the security of genebanks and their materials figure prominently in international policy discussions about how to organize and fund conservation, and I argue that they are important in shaping the contemporary 'global system'. The contrast between the potential vulnerability of genebanks and their remit of securing diversity makes evident that maintaining collections for the long-term involves technical, infrastructural and social challenges, and that their continued existence cannot be taken for granted. Thus, this account shows the value in being attentive to the role of concerns about vulnerability in shaping the evolution of genebanking as actors seek to ensure their continued existence.
|6 February||Boris Jardine (HPS, Cambridge)
Natural history and the antiquarian
|The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the 'New Museum Idea', a widespread increase in mass-audience museums containing both large research departments and extensive public galleries. The idea was given brick-and-mortar form in Cambridge on the 'New Museums Site' – the present home of HPS and former home of a suite of museums ranging across the sciences. In seeking to understand the development of these museums, and the revolution in university education to which they were tied, it is necessary to look at (at least) three things: the nature of their collections, the professional identity of their curators, and the intellectual agenda that united them. In this talk I explore the role of antiquarianism and local history in the shaping of collections of natural specimens. Antiquarianism, I argue, acted at once as a filter through which ever-growing collections could be passed and interpreted, and a robust social identity that could justify and even mask the radical nature of the new museums.|
|13 February||Richard Bellis (University of Leeds)
Pathology and preparations at the Great Windmill Street School
|Whilst William Hunter's vast collection of anatomical and pathological preparations has long been the subject of historical interest, how that collection was formed and used in the everyday work of the school has been understudied. The result is that historians have typically seen Hunter's series of lectures as being consistent in format and content across his career, and have drawn conclusions on his anatomical lectures based on this. However, a comparison of his early and late career lecture series reveals a substantial expansion in the content of the lectures. I argue that this was the direct result of the continued collecting of preparations, with both the making of preparations and the finished objects themselves acting as flexible tools for teaching and research at the school. Furthermore, as the overall collection grew, so did the opportunity to study pathology. The retaining of diseased parts from dissections and post-mortem examinations over the course of Hunter's career, alongside his assistants' collecting, allowed a range of morbid appearances to be seen and studied by them, as well as their students. This manifested itself in two ways: lectures on disease became a distinct part of Hunter's anatomical course, and Matthew Baillie's Morbid Anatomy (1793) utilised the collection to draw conclusions on changes in anatomical structure brought about by disease. I argue that the content of both the lectures and work by Baillie, both distinct outputs of the school, was the result of the regular practice of the school: that of making preparations.|
|20 February||Ben Bradley (Charles Sturt University, NSW)
Natural history or psychology? Reading expressions and being read in Darwin's science of interdependence
|Charles Darwin claimed to have been the first to approach 'the highest psychical faculties of man ... exclusively from the side of natural history'. It was on grounds of his practice as a naturalist that Darwin distanced his own studies of agency from those of contemporaries who overtly styled their work as 'psychology' (Spencer, Bain). What hung on this distinction? And what was it Darwin took from studying the economy of nature that he believed to illuminate mind and behaviour? Setting out from his crucial concept of 'social animals', I aim to show that natural history meant something more and other to Darwin than evolutionary ancestry, particularly when studying human agency: namely, the here-and-now of interdependence. My case-study is of Darwin's methods for understanding the meanings of non-verbal expressions as residing in their recognition by others. His theory of blushing takes this form of recognition to a second level (I read you as reading me). This dynamic of higher-order or 'meta' recognition proves to be the central principle in Darwin's explanations for the pangs of conscience and for erotic attraction.|
|27 February||Chris Preston (HPS, Cambridge) and Mark Hill
Changes in the culture of biological recording, 1955–2015
|The use of volunteers (often now called 'citizen scientists') to systematically map the distribution of plant species was pioneered by the Botanical Society of the British Isles in the Atlas of the British Flora (1962), compiled by the Cambridge botanists Frank Perring and Max Walters. Their techniques have been adapted for mapping the distribution of many groups of animal and plants in Europe, North America and elsewhere as 'the Atlas movement swept over the face of the earth'. In time the recording exercise was repeated for the more popular groups, so that birds, butterflies, dragonflies and flowering plants in Britain have now been mapped and remapped. Comparison of the results of these mapping exercises is a vital source of information on changes in range, including the decline of some species and the expansion of others. However, simple comparison of the results of repeat mapping, or even sophisticated numerical analyses, may be misleading. In interpreting apparent changes, a knowledge of 'cultural' changes in biological recording is often essential. Scientists interested in distributional change therefore find themselves venturing into the territory of historians.|
|6 March||Charlie Jarvis (Natural History Museum)
James Cuninghame – 'a learned and most industrious promoter of natural philosophy'
|By any standards, James Cuninghame FRS (ca. 1665–1709) led a remarkable life. A Scot trained in medicine in Leiden, he participated in four voyages bound for Asia, as a surgeon or trader, and discussed his discoveries with major figures of the time in natural philosophy in London, notably Hans Sloane, James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet and John Woodward. He narrowly escaped death in attacks on East India Company (EIC) factories in Pulo Condore (Vietnam) and Banjarmassin (Borneo), and was imprisoned in France, the Canary Islands and Cochinchina, but he never failed to be an enthusiastic and conscientious collector, acquiring specimens of both natural and artificial objects (including hundreds of pressed plants, insects and shells, and watercolours of plants by native artists), as well as items of trade interest (tea samples, china clay, a scarlet dye, maps, a Chinese compass), wherever he touched land. Although probably best known as one of the first people to bring extensive natural history collections from China (chiefly from Amoy (Xiamen) and Chusan (Zhoushan)) to Europe, Cuninghame also made collections in the Canary Islands, Ascension, St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, Java, Malacca, Pulo Condore and Cochinchina, all of which are among the earliest that survive from many of these locations. New research is shedding light on the contexts in which Cuninghame travelled. His Amoy voyage, for example, is now known to have to have taken place on an interloping ship rather than one belonging to the EIC – remarkable in the context of trade with China at this time.|
|13 March||James Poskett (HPS, Cambridge)
Reading colonial photography: the publication and reception of A Phrenologist Amongst the Todas (1873)
|This talk follows phrenological photographs as they travelled back and forth across the imperial world. As a case study, I take the series of photographs featured in William Elliot Marshall's A Phrenologist Amongst the Todas (1873). The nineteen photographs in this book were originally taken in the Nilgiri Hills, in southern India. Together, the photographs and text document the phrenology of the Todas, a pastoral hill tribe living in the Nilgiris. Marshall's book circulated widely. It was read by many of the most influential evolutionary and anthropological thinkers of the late nineteenth century including Charles Darwin, E.B. Tylor, Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages and W.H.R. Rivers. To date, historians have treated photography in India as relatively disconnected from the wider world. But as I argue in this talk, the history of photography in India needs to be understood, like the history of colonial photography more generally, as part of a global history of material exchange. It was through circulation and reception that photography and phrenology became intertwined with evolutionary thought and colonial power.|