Natural History in Cambridge

A joint meeting arranged by the SHNH in association with Cambridge University’s Cabinet of Natural History.

Spring Meeting & AGM, Cambridge, UK, 2004

Friday 21st May to Sunday 23rd May

Meeting Reports

  1. Meetings Secretary Report
  2. ‘From spiny anteaters to Flint Jack’, by Ralph O’Connor‘
  3. Elephants, fakes and calculators’, by Miranda Lowe
  4. ‘Darwin Day’, by Louise Tomsett

Meetings Secretary Report

The meeting was arranged by Jim Endersby, with support from the Cabinet of Natural History and Darwin College Cambridge, which provided the venue. The first afternoon comprised a visit to the University Library to see a display and hear a presentation on the Darwin project, followed by group visits to museums.  All then regrouped in Darwin College for a keynote address  by Ann Secord before a conference dinner in a Tapas bar. This was the occasion for a presentation to A. P. Harvey to mark his retirement as Treasurer after 40 years service. A speech by the President was followed by the presentation of a cheque representing members' contributions and accompanying letters. The second day provided an interesting programme of speakers, ending with further museum visits. A smaller group remained on Sunday  morning for an informative tour of the Botanic Garden by the Director, Dr John Parker.

Gina Douglas

From spiny anteaters to Flint Jack

This year’s AGM in Cambridge came with a superb three-day conference attached: this was ‘Natural History in Cambridge’, arranged by the SHNH in association with Cambridge University’s Cabinet of Natural History.

This was an excellent blend of papers, talks, drinks receptions, guided museum tours, food, and a lot of mingling and chatting – and while based roughly at Darwin College, we were kept on our feet by a series of events in different parts of the university. There was so much going on, I can only mention a few personal highlights. Paul White kicked off in the University Library, introducing us to the Darwin Correspondence Project with some unforgettable images of Darwin’s more bearded acquaintances.

Various museum visits were laid on after this: I was lucky enough to get onto the Zoology Museum tour, where William Foster showed us into the back rooms full of stuffed exotica. It was good to see they had a spare platypus round the back, not to mention a stuffed great auk; and I’d never have guessed that the long-nosed spiny anteater had such a thick coat of fur.

The academic papers were particularly good. My experience of conferences is that there are usually quite a few moments, or maybe half-hours, where you find your attention drifting towards the approaching coffee-break or the sunshine outside. But this simply didn’t happen here. Anne Secord’s keynote address on artisan involvement in British natural history collecting was placed at the (you would think) hazardous time of 6.15pm, after wine, but this was a gripping paper, and the bit about ‘Flint Jack’ at the beginning (a noted Victorian forger of archaeological ‘finds’) could have come from the pages of Mrs. Gaskell.

The other papers were just as compelling. I’m not an early riser, but Sadiah Qureshi’s 9am paper on nineteenth-century ethnological displays was as captivating as the curiosities themselves, and excellently illustrated with contemporary posters. The high standard of visual aids was another feature running through these papers. We also had Cathy Gere exposing a surprising Freudian dimension to Arthur Evans’s heroic excavations at Cnossos in Crete; Vicky Carroll enlarging on the various eccentricities of the Somerset fossil collector Thomas Hawkins; Sujit Sivasundaram exploring the strange interpenetration of Eastern myth and Western politics in Victorian representations of the elephant; and Kathryn Medlock, over from Tasmania to tell us a sobering story about how colonial collecting practices may have hastened the extinction of the thylacine. These papers were all of a very high quality, and taken together with everything else add up to a really enjoyable conference – not forgetting the dinner in the Bun Shop tapas bar, an uproarious and very happy occasion. Thanks to Jim Endersby and all those who made this meeting such a success. I’m very much looking forward to the next one.

– Ralph O’Connor

Elephants, Fakes and Calculators

After an evening of delicious Spanish food at the local Tapas restaurant and the pleasant company of some retired members of staff from the Natural History Museum, London I started Saturday bright and early.

The seminar was held in the old library, Darwin College, a beautiful building originally bought by the Darwin family and its walls are adorned with many family portraits. Five stimulating and thought provoking talks were given:

  1. Sadiah Qureshi – explained the early 19th Century views of ethnological displays and about the collection of human specimens.
  2. Cathy Gere – talked about Arthur Evans passion for Minoan replicas of fakes.
  3. Vicky Carroll – spoke about the eccentric writings of Thomas Hawkins and how his writings may have challenged accepted boundaries of that time. 
  4. Sujit Sivasundaram – talked about the British exploitation of Indian knowledge about the elephant.  
  5. Kathryn Medlock – spoke about the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger and her quest to find other skins and skeletons of the Tiger in other Museums.

After walking off my lunch by a walk in the gardens surrounding the College we got down to the serious business of the annual general meeting. The society’s President Joe Cain chaired the meeting and it was swift but informative. Tony Harvey was thanked for his 40 years service to the society.

Later that afternoon we were welcomed at the Whipple Museum by the Director, Dr Liba Taub. After a brief introduction we were shown their clocking in and out system, which recorded the time spent in the Museum and any comments from visitors. The exhibition spaces were packed with all kinds of scientific instruments, anything from telescopes to modern calculators. It was thoroughly interesting and well worth the visit.

I enjoyed my two days at Cambridge and would like to thank the organisers. It was a great introduction to the society for me as a new member.

– Miranda Lowe, Curator, Zoology Dept, The Natural History Museum, London

Darwin Day

The conference began with a wonderful talk on the Darwin Correspondence Project, held in the university’s library. Paul White (associate editor of the project) gave us a fascinating insight as to how Darwin developed a global network of communication, often incorporating the letters and pictures he received in amongst his own notes as raw material for his theories. About 9,000 of the 16,000 known correspondence have been catalogued so there is still great deal to do but the project is helping give increased access to these documents.

Next there was a tour of the Zoology Museum. We were shown round the refurbished galleries and then behind the scenes to the crowded but atmospheric collections including specimens from the Beagle voyage. The tour concluded with an unexpected wine reception to celebrate the completion of the restoration and publication of the museum’s histories including entertaining stories of how the collections developed through the years.

With the extra incentive of yet another wine reception we made our way to Darwin College where Dr Elisabeth Leedham-Green talked about how the building came into the university’s possession and the Darwin family’s past and present connections to the university. The last talk of the day was by Dr Anne Secord covering the various influences and contributions that led to the natural history collections we have in Britain today.

Dinner at a tapas bar rounded off the day, giving us a chance to discuss the day’s events, catch up with friends and the opportunity to make new ones. I was lucky enough to spend the evening in the company of three gentlemen who were retired curators from the museum where I work who had some interesting stories of their own to tell. Dr Joe Cain provided the entertainment with speeches of thanks to various members and also a memorable send-off to Tony Harvey, to whose long years of service we are very grateful for and who couldn’t quite be persuaded by Joe to stay another year. A wonderful end to a thoroughly enjoyable day.

I would like to thank everyone involved in the conference for all their hard work – it was much appreciated and I look forward to the next one.

Louise Tomsett, Tour guide / assistant curator,  Zoology Department, The Natural History Museum, London.

The Society for the History of Natural History (Registered Charity No.2103555 in England and Wales)