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Abstracts for Cabinet of Natural History

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.

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).

Michaelmas Term 2016

Show overview

10 October Matthew Wale (University of Leicester)
'Why do entomologists want a weekly newspaper?': periodicals and the practice of nineteenth-century natural history
'Why do entomologists want a weekly newspaper?' was a question posed by the first issue of the Entomologist's Weekly Intelligencer in April 1856. Established and edited by the eminent entomologist Henry Tibbats Stainton, this was the first weekly periodical dedicated to the study of insects. Stainton pointed to the advantages of such a publication, citing speed and efficiency of communication, surpassing the slower and more laborious task of personal correspondence. To this end, the bulk of the Intelligencer's contents consisted of notes and observations received from a host of insect collectors around the country, establishing an entomological community unprecedented in size and scope. The nineteenth century saw a rapid increase in the number of periodicals dedicated to the varying branches of natural history, and this paper will seek to address the wider implications of this through detailed study of the Intelligencer. It will draw upon Stainton's extensive correspondence archive, in addition to the periodical itself, in order to demonstrate the complex relationship between the periodical and the practice of natural history, focusing on such activities as field work, collecting and correspondence. Particular attention will be given to the ways in which such periodicals allowed for much wider participation in the creation and circulation of scientific knowledge, with Stainton himself actively encouraging the pursuit of entomology amongst the working-classes.
17 October Jessica Ratcliff (Cornell University and Yale-NUS College)
The natural history of the Napoleonic Wars: collecting at the East India Company c. 1798–1820
At the turn of the nineteenth century, at its headquarters in the City of London, the East India Company established a new museum. By mid-century, the museum at India House had grown to contain one of Europe's most extensive collections of the natural history, arts and sciences of Asia. This talk uses the museum's early natural history collections to explore the material relationship between scientific practice and imperial conflict. I will first describe some of the ways in which the Asian theatres of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars would shape the scope and scale of the East India Company's collections. I will then consider one particular case: the British invasion of Dutch Java (1811) the collecting activities of Thomas Horsfield and Stamford Raffles, and the uses to which those Javanese collections were put. Such cases raise the question of how and why the practices of war came to encompass natural history surveys during this period. I will conclude by offering a few tentative answers to that question.
24 October Annual Fungus Hunt
31 October Jordan Goodman (UCL)
After Cook: Joseph Banks and his travelling natures, 1787–1810
The death of Captain James Cook in February 1779 deprived Britain of one of its finest navigators but the voyage continued. For Joseph Banks, the voyage of the Resolution and the Discovery, in which he had a part, was the beginning of a new relationship with the Admiralty and a new chapter in the history of botanical knowledge.

Banks never went to sea again after 1773. For the rest of his life the sea was at the heart of what he loved to do most. From 1778, when he was elected President of the Royal Society, Banks intervened in all of the Admiralty voyages of exploration making them his kind of scientific project: he selected vital personnel, including gardeners, botanists and artists; he wrote out instructions for commanders; and most importantly, he changed the architecture of the ships by commandeering space, by turning them into 'floating gardens', moving plants from one part of the world to the other, and supplying King George III's Royal Gardens at Kew with exotic plants unique in Europe. But it wasn't just Admiralty ships that saw the visible hand of Banks. In 1798, the East India Company agreed to let Banks use one of their ships to move plants between Kew and Calcutta, an unprecedented and successful project. With similar techniques, Banks moved plants between Kew and Canton from 1803 and 1810.

This paper on the world of Banks and his travelling natures will draw on two Admiralty voyages and one East India Company voyage.
7 November David Harris Sacks (Reed College)
Learning to know: the educations of Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Harriot
Richard Hakluyt (1552?–1616), cosmographer and clergyman, and Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), ethnographer, mathematician, natural philosopher and polymath, were explorers and discovers in their era's newly-opened territories of study. Both were consumers of learning and producers of knowledge and both sought the truth insofar as human reason could grasp it. Both also contributed to the formation of what we know as modern science with its distinctive ethos of debate and proof. This paper focuses on their educations and experiences, mainly in Oxford, as they began their careers of inquiry into the 'Book of Nature'. Along with considering the role played by humanist learning in shaping their studies of the natural world, attention will be given to Oxford's conflicted religious and cultural climate relates and how it relates to their goals, which Hakluyt defined as 'the certain and full discovery of the world'. For Hakluyt the 'world' was the earth as divinely created. For Harriot, who contributed to a diversity of fields, the 'world' was the universe, a new usage in the period, which took in the heavens as well as the earth. Both men shared an eirenical religious outlook, encouraged by their experiences in Oxford as well as their teachers, and both came to understand their studies of nature to represent a realm of intellectual peace where doubts could be overcome, disagreements could be reconciled, and it would be possible to know the truth with certainty using the senses as well as reason.
14 November Anja-Silvia Goeing (Visiting Fellow, Harvard University)
Conrad Gessner, the Zurich Lectorium, and the study of physics and medicine in the early modern world
Conrad Gessner's approach towards the world and mankind was centred on his preoccupation with the human soul, an object of study that had challenged classical writers such as Aristotle and Galen, and which remained as important in post-Reformation debate.⁠ Writing commentaries on Aristotle's De Anima (On the Soul) was part of early-modern physics education at university and formed the preparatory step for studying medicine. I will use the case study of Gessner's commentary on De Anima to explore how Gessner's readers prioritised De Anima's information. Gessner's intention was to provide the students of philosophy and medicine with the most current and comprehensive thinking, whether in physics or in medicine. His readers' responses raise questions about evolving discussions in physics and medicine, and Gessner's part in helping these develop.
21 November Lisa Skogh (Victoria & Albert Museum)
The mine as a subterranean Kunstkammer
Similar to how the princely gardens and its collections should be seen as an outdoor extension of the Kunstkammer, so could also the princely mines be interpreted. They all formed part of the over-all concept of an early modern elite setting where the mines were central in its association to the display of power, knowledge and rulership. This paper will present the connection between collecting and mining represented in the Kunstkammer from the perspective of the learned male ruler as well as his learned consort. Material wealth provided not only the possibility to create a Kunstkammer it directly influenced how the mineral resources were reflected in the patronage, hence it played a crucial role as an economic platform. As such, the idea of the mines as a subterranean Kunstkammer opens up different areas of collecting and sources of knowledge not the least in reference to the early modern Fürstin as a patron and collector.
28 November Daniel Simpson (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Ethnographic collecting and the despotism of Joseph Banks
While Joseph Banks is generally thought to have been an effective scientific patron, things were not always so. In 1784, several disaffected members of the Royal Society printed a remarkably angry pamphlet which accused Banks, their president, of numerous acts of 'despotic' behaviour quite unwarranted in a man who, in their opinion, possessed only 'puny pretensions' to his position. While Banks might make 'a very good Clerk', they offered, 'the man who is to fill the place of President, should be something more'.

In this talk, I explore such thinking on Banks' very particular brand of scientific patronage in terms of its impact upon the development of a subject which he did not much like. Although an avid collector of artificial curiosities on board the first expedition of Captain Cook, there is little evidence that Banks encouraged the subsequent development of object collecting as a subset of natural history, or as a means of colonial knowledge; in fact, he seems to have done much to frustrate the all-embracing mode of natural historical enquiry in which such study found legitimacy. By focusing in particular upon Banks' relationship and correspondence with colonial officials and scientific elites in late eighteenth-century Australia (the continent, perhaps, in which he was most invested), I argue that the nascent ethnographic studies favoured by imperial administrators as well as amateur explorers were gradually undermined by the enduring appeal of collecting according to the Banksian hierarchy. Our understanding of early Aboriginal Australia, I conclude, has never quite recovered.