Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tales of the Unexpected!

One of the great things about doing a collaborative PhD are the opportunities to get involved with the events and schemes that my partner institution runs. Last week this included having the opportunity to write a blog for the Natural History Museum as part of #ExploreArchives - the blog being based upon some of the research I've recently been doing which revealed the interesting tale of the purchase and arrival of a sea elephant to the Tring Museum. 

So this is perhaps slightly cheating but as it ties into this months theme of Natural History here is the link!


It's also worth having a poke around at some of the other recent blogs which showcase some of the really interesting things that can be uncovered within the archive - Enjoy!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Bauer Brothers: Masters of Scientific Illustration

To continue with a favourite theme of this blog I turn again to the topic of natural history and in particular The Bauer Brothers exhibition that has been on display in the Images of Nature Gallery at the Natural History Museum since November 2015.

File:Erica massoni00.jpg
Erica massoni L.f., 1796-1803
The exhibition features the botanical and zoological artworks of two exceptional natural history artists, Franz (1758-1840) and Ferdinand (1760-1826) Bauer; Austrian born brothers who were educated by some of the Continent’s most influential botanical artists of the time. You might be thinking, “oh here she goes again reviewing yet another exhibition” and yes that’s true. I can’t deny that that is what I’m going to do. But what I really like about this exhibition and why I wanted to blog about it is because I was so surprised by how taken I was with it, both in terms of content and concept.

Both brothers spent their entire lives studying and drawing nature and the results are some truly beautiful and, I’m reliably informed, scientifically accurate pieces of illustration. To quote the exhibition website, the brothers ‘excelled in learning the principles of botanical illustration according to the Linnaean system of classification. This technique typically depicts the entire plant in flower, but separately represents the bud and fruit, often dissected to show the internal structure’(1). They are really fascinating pieces of art to stand and look at, and even more so when you consider the degree of accuracy.

But behind the obvious skill both men had, I was also taken by the stories of them as individuals. They had similar artistic styles and yet their careers were very different from each other. Franz had been hired by Sir Joseph Banks as the first resident artist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. While Ferdinand had been hired by Banks as the natural history artist on the HMS Investigator (1801-1805) on its expedition to Australia. There he worked alongside Robert Brown and made many sketches, which he bought back and based future water colours on.

They are really beautiful pieces artwork – the colours surprisingly bold and the level of detail just amazing. I rather naively wouldn’t have expected scientific illustration of this period to have been of such a high standard. It really was a pleasant surprise and when in the museum I always like to wander past and take a look, especially as the drawings and watercolours rotate every four months.

Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, what I also think is great about this exhibition is how it highlights the depth of the Natural History Museum’s collections, especially those of the Library and Archives. By having this designated gallery, which shows exhibitions on a rotating basis, Library staff are given the opportunity to delve into the archive and special collections to bring to light something a bit different; something that isn’t a piece of taxidermy or a slice of science. It can really remind us as visitors that the value of the collections for research goes beyond science and can reveal the history of the people involved in making the museum and its collections. I’ve made clear elsewhere that I’m a huge fan of this approach and I was really pleased to discover that there is at least one place within the museum, designated to informing the public about an aspect of the history of its collections.

You can find more info about the exhibition, which runs until February 2017 here - http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/whats-on/programs/nhm/bauer_brothers_art_exhibition.html

(1)  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives/collections/bauer-brothers.html