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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.

All seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. Please feel free to bring your lunch.

Organised by Laura Brassington (lb685).

Lent Term 2019

Show overview

21 January Jack Ashby (Museum of Zoology, Cambridge)
Tour of the recently re-opened University Museum of Zoology and an insider's guide to natural history museums
Meet outside the Whale Hall (main entrance of the Museum of Zoology) by 1pm
The Cabinet of Natural History is invited to a private, guided tour of the recently re-opened University Museum of Zoology, led by myself, the Museum Manager. As well as sharing stories from the history of the museum and highlights from its world-leading collection, the session will explore some of the insights used to develop a critical eye for visiting natural history galleries elsewhere. By using examples from the Museum, I will discuss the relationship between how natural history museums aim (successfully) to inspire wonder in the natural world, and the extent to which museums accurately represent nature in their displays.

Exhibits will range from dodos to whales, as well as giant wombat-relatives and four-tonne sloths. I will discuss the research of the Museum and seek to answer questions, such as the extent to which specimens in natural history museums are authentic and represent the species they are intended to exemplify and what kinds of human biases have been introduced and why. I will argue that museums are a product of their own history and the societies in which they are embedded.

Museums are not apolitical or value-free: if we know what to look for, we might spot evidence of speciesism, the patriarchy and colonialism when we next visit a museum gallery.
28 January Genie Yoo (Princeton University)
Advijsen, old and new: the life span of VOC natural-historical information within the Dutch East Indies
In the last decades of the 18th century, VOC administrators in Ambon dug deep into their own provincial archive in Casteel Victoria to unearth bundles of natural-historical papers written almost a century earlier. Among these late-17th and early-18th century papers were reports and assessments – often labelled advijs – written by and for individual administrative officials who sought answers to specific questions; in this case, questions pertaining to the controlled extirpation of plants in the Maluku islands. Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627–1702) was one among several other 17th-century administrators whose written assessments would come to inform administrative decisions almost a century later, in the last, twilight decades of the Company which witnessed heightened inter-imperial competition and a severe economic downturn that had far-reaching consequences in Company posts across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. This paper attempts to historicize how administrators gauged the life span of natural-historical information within this context and looks at VOC practices of recording and retrieving information on one island across time. How did officials' own practices of reading and interpreting the papered past inform their understanding of contemporary problems and solutions? How did they register a century's worth of time and practice in the papers of those whose practical urgencies differed from their own? Did they ever consider information to be outdated and how did they assess the risks of resuscitating old natural-historical methods for new use? This paper attempts to answer these broader questions while also reflecting on the power of the archive for historical actors whose own prognostications were based on fragments of mediated information from a wildly different past.
4 February Edwin Rose (HPS, Cambridge)
Printing, publishing and circulating books across Joseph Banks's empire
The publication Joseph Banks (1743–1820) is remembered for is the Florilegium, a series of copperplates that represent the plants he and Daniel Solander (1733–1782) collected during the Endeavour voyage to the Pacific (1768–1771), which remained unpublished until the 1980s. However, from the early 1780s, Banks published and oversaw the production of several works concerning the botany of the West Indies, Japan, India, China, Africa and species cultivated in Kew Gardens.

This talk concentrates on two of Banks's books, Reliquiæ Houstounianæ (1781), on the plants of the West Indies, and Icones Selectæ Plantarum (1791), on the plants of Japan. Initially, I examine the processes employed to produce a work of natural history in the late 18th century. Banks's publications were privately printed, using the highest quality materials and most skilled craftsmen available in London. Secondly, I examine the distribution of these materials. Banks had a small number of copies printed that he circulated to a specific group within the Republic of Letters and to those undertaking fieldwork in Asia and the West Indies. An analysis of these publications from their inception to distribution gives a new understanding of the methods and incentives for producing and circulating a work of natural history in late 18th-century Britain.
11 February Sebestian Kroupa (HPS, Cambridge)
Georg Joseph Kamel (1661–1706): natural knowledge in transit between the Philippines and Europe
When stationed in Manila at the turn of the 18th century, the Jesuit pharmacist Georg Joseph Kamel found himself engaged in encounters between European and local traditions of knowledge. Based on his local experience, he produced extensive treatises of Philippine flora, which were later printed in Europe. Focusing on the practices involved in Kamel's knowledge production, this paper will explore Kamel's strategies in translating Philippine nature from local to European contexts. I will open with an examination of Kamel's plant classification system, which reveals categories of knowledge inspired by Filipino indigenous traditions and shows entanglements between European science and local exigencies. However, upon arrival in Europe, these hybrid categories found little understanding among sedentary European naturalists and became lost in translation. Kamel was more successful in his attempts to transplant Philippine medicinal herbs. Through building associations with plants described by canonical authors of the Old World, Kamel sought to 'Galenise' Philippine medicinal plants – that is, to incorporate them into the Galenic medical tradition. In this manner, Kamel endowed plants with clear theoretical foundations comprehensible to European experts and customers and paved the way for their deployment on both local and global scales and markets.
18 February Elena Romero-Passerin (University of St Andrews)
Students, tourists and farmers: the publics of botanic gardens in the 18th century
This talk will look at the visitors of publicly funded botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Florence and Pisa in the second half of the 18th century. Taken together, those three cities hosted five publicly funded botanic gardens. Botanic gardens were originally created to teach botany to university students. However, by the 18th century, the audience for botanic gardens in general had diversified. This paper will show the diversity of the publics of botanic gardens. Botany had become a popular hobby for the elite. Botanic gardens were recognised as important attractions for tourists going on their Grand Tour in Italy. Even the lower classes of society were now invited to wander around the gardens.

Only two of the gardens studied here were university gardens, two were managed by learned societies, and the last one belonged to a museum of natural history. Each of them had different target audiences and different rules about access. This paper will analyse the rules and testimonies about visitors of the gardens to understand what people wanted when they visited a botanic garden as well as what the institutions themselves wanted from their audience. Ultimately it will argue that the gardens' relationship to the public was an important part of what defines them as 'spaces of knowledge'.
25 February John Tweddle (Natural History Museum, London)
Building knowledge of the natural world: the historical and contemporary contributions of citizen science within the UK
Since the 19th century, volunteer communities of amateur-expert naturalists have played a central role in generating scientific understanding of the UK's natural environment, through observing and documenting the natural world. This long and illustrious tradition continues today, with much of our knowledge of the plant and animal species that occur in the UK deriving from the expertise and passion of these long-term networks of volunteer naturalists.

Set against this continuity, the first part of the 21st century has seen a rapid expansion of the broader field of citizen science. Driven by the emergence of digital technologies, pressing scientific need and rising public interest, citizen science has increased in profile and prominence to become a popular pastime and a distinct academic field. Each year, over a million people from across the UK contribute their time, expertise and enthusiasm to an ever growing diversity of research projects relating to the UK's wildlife and environment. For many contributors, this involvement represents their first direct experience of the process of science.

In this talk I will consider the changing landscape of citizen science and highlight some of the opportunities and challenges that this is presenting for both the field of science and the citizen scientists themselves.
4 March Anna Svensson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm)
The 'dye herbarium': capturing colour in botanical collections
There is an anomaly among the old herbaria in Uppsala. Tucked away on a lower shelf, a smaller collection yields unexpected contents: page after page present colourful skeins of silk and wool samples dyed from lichens. They are the colour samples of the Johannes P. Westring's printed dyer's manual, Svenska Lafvarnas Färghistoria, eller Sättet att använda dem till färgning och annan hushållsnytta (Stockholm, 1805). What is this textile collection doing in the herbarium?

Pondering the relevance of dye-related collections and specimens to the history of botany brings the role of colour to the fore: colour, that fleeting quality of the plant that is soon lost from the preserved specimen. The question of how to capture colour is an old problem, reflected in early modern experiments with different ways of preserving and representing them, including painting specimens and making nature prints. The juxtaposition involved in what we might call the 'dye herbarium' is an opportunity for comparison that highlights shared challenges of working with plants as distinctly local and temporal organisms. Both are concerned with preserving particular elements of plants, which given their transience requires accurate labels and systematic procedures.

These observations are a venture into unfamiliar ground for me as a historian, as they have been informed by my own forays into natural dyeing. Methodologically, this has made me more aware of tensions within hierarchies of knowledge shaping my own interpretive frameworks, broadly informed by the material turn in the history of science.
11 March Patrick Anthony (Vanderbilt University)
Meeting nature halfway: Georg Forster, mining, and the aesthetics of artifice
In 1784, Georg Forster travelled through mining-landscapes in Germany's Harz and Ore Mountains. There he encountered 'a new and rejuvenated Nature'. Steeped in the teachings of the mining elites who guided him, Forster came to see water-, horse- and man-powered industry as a noble human effort to participate in the 'workshop of Nature'. His journals oscillate between hubris and humility: keenly aware of the awesome power of nature evidenced by mine collapses, Forster understood mining as a project of 'fitting', even 'completing', natural landscapes. Following Forster's journey, this talk elucidates the unfamiliar sentimental world of late-18th-century resource extraction, which beguiles two dichotomous historiographical traditions. While some scholars describe the extractive ethos of Forster's generation as a wholesale 'oeconomization of nature', another tradition identifies the turn of the 19th century, with its embrace of holism, as a wellspring of ecological thinking. Indeed, the curious nature of this moment is captured by the fact that so many romantic figures participated in Germany's mining industry – from poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Hardenberg ('Novalis') to savants like Henrik Steffens and Alexander von Humboldt. Forster, to whom Humboldt attributed his own holism, helps us dwell in the alterity of a worldview whereby human dominion over nature was to be 'shared with nature'. To that end, this talk grounds the lofty aesthetic meditations of Forster and his contemporaries in the 'working world' of mining, specifically in the hydraulic systems (dams, aqueducts, pumps and hydro-powered ore presses) that epitomized their philosophy of nature.