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Rarities, collections and the history of science

Silvia De Renzi

Research on collecting has grown enormously in recent years and become increasingly relevant for the history of science. Cabinets of natural specimens and museums were among the major sites for natural investigations and the communication of natural knowledge before the age of laboratories. To reconstruct the various ways in which nature was collected, displayed and given an order (not necessarily a taxonomic order) provides us with valuable insights into the meaning of natural investigations in the past. But collecting and displaying nature are still today major features of scientific culture and practice: think, for example of collecting genetic material and science museums for teaching and public understanding of science. For studies on scientific collecting in the 19th and 20th centuries, see McOuat's contribution to this volume.

I focus here on three areas:

  • general studies on collecting;
  • Renaissance and early-modern collections of natural specimens and art objects;
  • collecting and the history of science.

[Whipple shelfmarks in brackets]

General studies on collecting

Some of the most interesting works on collecting come from research in art history, history of archaeology and anthropology, and in the specific discipline of museology.

J. Elsner and R. Cardinal (eds.), The Cultures of Collecting, [C 463] can serve as an introduction to the wide range of themes connected to collecting.

S. M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition, 1994, is a study on collecting from the point of view of recent museum studies [E 694]. See also L. Jordanova, 'Objects of Knowledge: A Historical Perspective on Museums' in P. Vergo (ed.), The New Museology, 1989 [D 168]; E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, 1992; G. W. Stocking Jr. (ed.), Objects and Others: Essays in Museums and Material Culture, 1985 [Z 927]; S. Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic ,the Souvenir, the Collection, 1984.

Renaissance and early-modern collecting

For a long time early-modern collecting has fallen within the remit of art history. A classic study is J. von Schlosser, Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance, 1908. As interest in collecting is getting broader, research is increasingly including a wide range of topics, such as the moral, religious and social functions of collecting, and the natural investigations which were carried out in early-modern museums and Wunderkammern.

K. Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500–1800, 1990, offers one of the most stimulating discussions of the cultural and social meaning of collecting and of the notion of curiosity. See also his 'Collections et musées', Annales: Économie Société Civilisations, 48, (Nov–Dec 1993), an essay review of recent works on collecting.

The Origins of Museums: the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, Oxford, 1985, heralded the new interest in collections and is still an essential starting point for further research. Impey and MacGregor are also the editors of the Journal of the History of Collections, which has published many important contributions. L. Daston's 'The Factual Sensibility', ISIS, 79 (1988) offers an interesting intepretation of early-modern collecting while reviewing various recent works including The Origins of Museums.

The early-modern literature on museums and collections is discussed in E. Schulz, 'Notes on the History of Collecting and of Museums in the Light of Selected Secondary Literature of the 16th to the 18th Centuries', Journal of the History of Collections, 2 (1990); see also I. Herklotz, 'Neue Literatur zur Sammlungsgeschichte', Kunstchronik, 47 (1994), 117–134.

M. Fabianski, 'Iconography of the Architecture of Ideal Musaea in the 15th to 18th Centuries', Journal of the History of Collections, 2, (1990) explores early-modern representations of museums and includes a rich iconographical apparatus. C. Becker, Vom Raritäten-Kabinett zur Sammlung als Institution. Sammeln und Ordnen im Zeitalter der Aufklärung, 1996, is a rich source of information on late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German collecting. A. te Heesen, Der Weltkasten. Die Geschichte einer Bilderenzyklopädie aus dem 18. Jahrhundert, 1997, is excellent on eighteenth-century German educational uses of cabinets, collections and encyclopaedias. A. Grote (ed.), Macrocosmos in Microcosmo. Die Welt in der Stube. Zur Geschichte des Sammelns 1450 bis 1800, 1994 offers a wide range of essays by no means related only to German collections [E 753].

On the fashion for collecting in early-modern Italy, see the contributions of G. Olmi: 'From the Marvellous to the Commonplace: Notes on Natural History Museums, 16th–18th Centuries', in R. Mazzolini (ed.), Non-Verbal Communication in Science Prior to 1900, 1993 [C 404]; 'Science-Honour-Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the 16th and 17th Centuries', in The Origins of Museums, and L'Inventario del Mondo. Catalogazione della Natura e Luoghi del Sapere nella Prima Eta' Moderna, 1992 (unfortunately not yet available in English). P. Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture in Early-Modern Italy, 1994 [C 450] is a very rich study, which explores the construction of the identity of early-modern collectors as well as the activities carried out in museums. It also has a useful bibliography. For a selection of primary sources related to Italian museums and collections, see C. De Benedictis, Per la storia del collezionismo italiano: fonti e documenti, 1991.

For France, see A. Schnapper, Collections et Collectionneurs dans la France du XVIIe Siècle, 1 vol. Le Géant, la Licorne et la Tulipe: Histoire et Histoire naturelle – 2 vol. Curieux du Grand Siècle: Oeuvres d'Art. Paris, 1988–1994. The Whipple holds the first volume only [W 544]. See also D. Poulot, Bibliographie de l'Histoire des Musées de France, 1994.

The English pattern of collecting was quite different from the model provided by Italian and Central European courts. Surveys of the most interesting English collectors are in A. MacGregor, 'The Cabinets of Curiosities in 17th-century Britain', and M. Hunter, 'The Royal Society's "Repository" and its Background', both in The Origins of Museums. An expanded version of the latter has appeared with the title 'Between Cabinets of Curiosities and Research Collection: The History of the Royal Society's "Repository"', in M. Hunter's Establishing the New Science, 1989 [E 545]. Recent studies on English collectors include A. MacGregor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum, 1994, [E 672 OVERSIZE]. W. E. Houghton, 'The English Virtuoso in the 17th Century', Journal of the History of Ideas, 1942 is still very useful.

In the early-modern period, catalogues of collections were often published to enhance a collector's prestige. They are sometimes richly illustrated and an excellent way of making yourself familiar with the wide range of objects coveted and possessed in the past. See for example: Museo Cospiano Annesso A Quello del Famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1677 [STORE 53:16]; U. Aldrovandi, Museum Methallicum, in Libros IIII Distributum, Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus ... Composuit, 1648, [STORE 79:2]; G. De Sepibus, Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musæum celeberrimum, 1678 [STORE 64:18]. B. Basliger, Catalogue Raisonné of Collecting in Germany, France, and England, 1565–1750, 1971 gives you a list of dozens of collections and their contents [E 704]. Other iconographic resources include catalogues of exhibitions such as Prag um 1600, on the court of Rudolph II. A. Lugli, Naturalia et Mirabilia, 1983 has marvellous illustrations; the text is in Italian.

Correspondence of 17th-century collectors including Nicolas de Peiresc and Cassiano Dal Pozzo is now available in print and provides valuable sources for reconstructing the discussions and activities of an extensive network of virtuosi. The representation and reproduction as well as circulation of art and natural objects held in museums were major activities of collectors, painters and other artisans. A good starting point for research on techniques of replication is M. Jones (ed.) Why Fakes Matter. Essays on Problems of Authenticity, 1992. A varied network of people, including travellers, missionaries and seamen, supplied collectors with specimens brought from the periphery to the centres of collecting. On the early-modern trade in rarities, see S. Aufrère, La Momie et la Tempête: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc et la Curiosité Égyptienne en Provence au Début du XVIIe Siècle, 1990 and J. Ceard (ed.), La Curiosité à la Renaissance, 1968. The Jesuit Order was one of the most efficient networks for collecting and sending objects from exotic countries back to Europe. See P. Findlen, 'Scientific Spectacles in Baroque Rome: Athanasius Kircher and the Roman College Museum', Roma Moderna e Contemporanea, 3, (1995), and S. J. Harris, 'Confession-Building, Long-Distance Networks, and the Organization of Jesuit Science', Early Science and Medicine, 1, (1996).

On the techniques of preservation of dry or wet specimens, see W. George, 'Alive or Dead: Zoological Collections in the 17th Century', in The Origins of Museums and P. L. Farber, The Development of Taxidermy and the History of Ornithology, 1977.

On the impact of voyages and imperial politics on 18th-century natural collections, see D. P. Miller and P. Hanns (eds.), Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, 1996 [V. 562]. See also E. Spary, 'Political, Natural and Bodily Economy' in N. Jardine, E. Spary, J. Secord (eds.) Cultures of Natural History, 1996.

If you are interested in early-modern collectors, art history journals, including The Burlington Magazine and The Art Bulletin are essential sources. The online Bibliography of the History of Art is now available via RLIN following the same path as to access the History of Science and Technology (ISIS) bibliography and then selecting Bibliography of the History of Art.

Collecting and the history of the history of science

In what follows I highlight two areas of research:

  • collecting science relics in the 19th and 20th centuries;
  • the history of science on display.

Books and instruments are the major resources for researching the history of science and yet little is known about those who in the 19th and 20th centuries assembled, and traded in, them: collectors and antiquarian dealers. Research could focus on the relations between private collectors and the trends of the antiquarian market on the one hand and the emergence of the history of science as an academic discipline, including the foundation of specialized libraries, museums and institutions of research, on the other.

E. B. Wells, 'Scientists' Libraries: a Handlist of Printed Sources' in Annals of Science, 40 (1983) is a useful starting point for research on the book collecting of scientists. Collecting books has always been a major feature of physicians' self fashioning. See A. Besson, 'Private Medical Libraries' in A. Besson (ed.), Thornton's Medical Books, Libraries and Collector. A Study of Bibliography and the Book Trade in Relation to the Medical Sciences, 1990. Catalogues of major science book collections including J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca Chemica. A Catalogue of the Collection of J. Young, 1906, P. Riccardi, Biblioteca Matematica Italiana, 1952 and D. I. Duveen, Bibliotheca Alchemica et Chemica, 1949 are essential tools for bibliographical research and yet the collecting activities of their authors are little documented. Their obituaries in ISIS provide preliminary information for future investigations.

A. N. L. Munby, The History and Bibliography of Sciences in England: The First Phase 1833–1845, 1968 and J. Carter, Taste and Techniques in Book Collecting. A Study of Recent Developments in Great Britain and the United States, 1948 offer some insights into the relations between book collecting and the history of science. N. Basbane, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, 1995 is a good introduction to book collecting between this country and the United States in this century.

Auctions are pivotal in the book trade. Scipio is a database which describes art auction and rare book catalogues for sales from the late sixteenth century onwards. Records include the dates and places of sales, the auction houses, sellers, institutional holdings, and titles of works. Access via RLIN.

On various patterns of collecting scientific instruments, see the special issue, 'Origins and Evolution of Collecting Scientific Instruments', The Journal of History of Collections, 7, (1995). In particular, see A. J. Turner, 'From Mathematical Practice to The History of Science', and R. G. W. Anderson, 'Connoissseurship, Pedagogy or Antiquarianism'. On the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and the project of R. T. Gunther, see A. V. Simcock, 'A Dodo in the Ark. The Genesis of the Museum of the History of Science in the Life of Robert T. Gunther', in A. V. Simcock (ed.), Robert T. Gunther and the Old Ashmolean, 1985. On the foundation of the history of science in Oxford and Cambridge, see J. A. Bennett, 'Museums and the Establishment of the History of Science at Oxford and Cambridge', special issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, 30, (1997).

On the American scene see, A. Thackray, 'The Pre-History of an Academic Discipline. The Study of the History of Science in the United States, 1891–1941', in E. Mendelsohn (ed.), Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences. Essays in Honor of I. Bernard Cohen, 1984.

Historians of science and curators of science museums are presently engaged in a lively discussion about the role of museums in the public debate on science on the one hand and the role of history in science museum exhibitions on the other. Various issues have been raised including the aims of science exhibitions, the political implications of display techniques, and the contribution of museums to a critical approach to science.

Good starting points to follow this debate are J. Durant (ed.), Museums and the public understanding of science, 1992 [Ref. File 31], and the special issue of Science as Culture, 'Science on Display', Guest editor Sharon Macdonald, 22, (1995). J. Bennett's, 'Can science museums take history seriously?' is on the Whipple Museum. See also S. M. Pearce, Exploring Science in Museums, 1996, [A.180]