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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 Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).

Easter Term 2018

Show overview

30 April Kathleen Murphy (California Polytechnic State University)
Beetles in a haystack: collecting insects via the eighteenth‐century British slave trade
In 1766, a British ship captain in the Gabon Estuary, just north of the equator in the Gulf of Guinea, found one of the largest beetles then known floating in the river. The Goliath beetle, as it came to be called, quickly became an object of desire among natural history collectors. This talk traces the efforts of Dru Drury, a British silversmith and entomologist, to acquire a specimen of the Goliath beetle by means of the slave trade. The silversmith's correspondence, account books, museum inventory and remarkable ledger of prospective specimen‐collectors allow us to trace how a naturalist in the mid‐eighteenth century might utilize British commercial and naval circuits to Africa in the pursuit of a particular specimen. The dramatic expansion in British participation in the slave trade by the middle of the century facilitated the efforts of naturalists such as Drury to collect specimens through the same circuits that collected enslaved Africans. Drury believed that Britain's commercial networks would not only enable him to acquire various new African specimens but, in particular, to obtain a Goliath beetle for his own museum. To encourage mariners to become collectors, Drury provided collecting supplies, images of what he desired, directions, and cash payments for each specimen delivered to his London home. In the search for the Goliath beetle, the naturalist repeatedly articulated ways that collecting slaves might lead to collecting specimens.
7 May Marine Bellégo (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris)
Watering plants, drying specimens: the Calcutta Botanical Garden and its fraught relationship with moisture (c.1864–c.1900)
Created at the end of the eighteenth century, the Calcutta Botanical Garden was an important element of the network of imperial gardens that served economic and political enterprises of the Raj. In the nineteenth century, it became a centre where plants were nursed, grew, transited, fell sick and often died. Some plants were dried in order to be incorporated into the herbarium, the place which was considered the most 'scientific' by the British botanists who claimed to run the garden. Growing plants and drying them both implied controlling quantities of water and moisture, a task that was seen as particularly difficult in what the garden's administration called an 'Indian context'. Plants in the ground were subject to drought, plants in pots fell victims to overwatering, and herbarium specimen were never dry enough. Regulating water was all the more necessary as the garden was situated on the bank of the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges, and was frequently subject to floods. I argue that this constant and sometimes obsessional preoccupation with moisture expressed the failure of the imperial claim to reduce 'place' to 'context', especially during the period of 'High Imperialism' that characterised the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
14 May László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest)
Earthquakes, the end of the world, and perspectives on the Last Judgment (1686–1756)
This paper – inspired by the prompt in Bernard de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) that 'suns' may and do become extinguished, and 'worlds' come to an end as a result of ordinary processes of transformation in the universe – investigates an aspect of the imbrication of the 'new science' and religious thought in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Firstly, it explores reports, accounts, interpretations of earthquakes (deliberately not the much discussed contributions of Enlightenment classics, but sources from learned journals, independent essays, treatises, sermons etc.) between those of Jamaica (1692) and Lisbon (1755) to assess the extent to which such calamities invited reflection on their natural causes in combination with a consideration of the possibility that they may prefigure an 'end of the world'. Such reflections were not unusual. Secondly, the paper also attempts to establish whether the possibility of such an end of 'this world' also evoked, in this period, thinking that pointed towards Enlightenment as 'the pursuit of happiness in this world, regardless of what may or may not come in the next one'. In this regard the result is rather negative: in so far as authors were concerned with larger meanings as to the kind of lives human beings are supposed to lead, preoccupation with 'the other world' remained highly resilient.
Friday 18 May Cabinet of Natural History Excursion to Stowe Landscape Gardens
We will be visiting Stowe, where we will receive a guided tour of the Gardens, followed by a picnic lunch and finally some free time to explore at our own leisure.

The entrance fee is £12. The Cabinet will provide transport and lunch. Please feel free to bring food to share. We will depart from the Department of Engineering at 10.30am and return to Cambridge by 5pm. Due to the capacity of the minibuses, the number of participants is limited to 14. Please RSVP to Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).
21 May Déborah Dubald (European University Institute, Florence)
Inventorying the Rhone: the scientific travels of Claude Jourdan collecting for the Natural History Museum of Lyon, 1834–1869
Serving as the director of the Natural History Museum of Lyon from 1834 to 1869, Claude Jourdan managed the museum's collections for nearly a lifetime with determination of his own. The museum's archive and his Journal d'Entrées are particularly representative of the importance of travel in Jourdan's collecting practices, especially of his efforts to assemble a comprehensive collection of minerals and fossils documenting the geology of the Rhone river basin. The respective specimens shed light on locational patterns, as well as pointing to the social dimension of Jourdan's mobility. The web of intermediaries and contacts patiently weaved together over decades provides insights into the collecting strategies developed by Jourdan, but also into the construction of his own persona within the scholarly world.

As an employee of a municipal museum, Jourdan also operated as a servant of the public establishment. Therefore, in addition to gathering specimens for the museum, Jourdan was charged with defining professional competences in the context of a public institution, as well as with negotiations with funding bodies, which were simultaneously local political authorities. Through looking at the prevailing and the peculiar in Jourdan's collecting practices, this paper will emphasise situational and contextual aspects of scientific knowledge production in Lyon. In particular, I seek to expose the construction modalities of the museum authority as a site of scientific knowledge and interrogate the extent to which this was tied to the invention of the director's own authority and persona.
Friday 15 June Cabinet of Natural History Garden Party, Caius Fellows' Garden, 1–3pm
Dániel Margócsy (HPS, Cambridge)
A natural history of satyrs
This talk examines how European natural historians made a connection between Ancient fables and exotic animals from the Renaissance to Darwin's contemporaries, focusing on the identification of the satyr with the orangutan. In recent years, historians have examined how early modern naturalists relied on humanist philology to identify the Greek plants of Dioscorides and Theophrastus with local plants in their environs. Yet the scholarship has ignored how naturalists also consulted myths and fables to make sense of exotic plants and animals. Well into the nineteenth century, natural historians assumed that, poetic licence aside, these sources offered factual evidence about real species. An expertise in natural history included the interpretive skill to tease out the difference between fact and fiction in poetry. This talk examines how European scholars justified their belief in the power of myth by making complex arguments about the age‐old circulation of knowledge between the Far East and Europe.