Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library


of an Exhibition

by Luned Palmer

Published on April 07, 2014

  • Description:

    This exhibition is a great example of how The American Museum of Natural History has really amazing stuff- an incredible collection- but their building could use some work. Scientific drawings culled from backstage are hung on (could it really still be cigarette stains?) yellowish walls. The drawings are gorgeous and outlandish, but the industrial carpeting distracts.
    On display are 50 striking, large-format reproductions from holdings in the Museum Library’s Rare Book collection. The museum’s holdings are seemingly bottomless (did you know they have a rare book collection?), and this exhibition reminds us of how much is not on display. If they’ve been hiding a drawing of a rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer and a catalogue of trilobites, what else do they have in their closets? My awe here is also partially inspired by my recent forays into the education cabinets at the museum. Tiny chinese shoes, a comb from Japan, a cabinet full of songbirds and an aburukuwa from Ghana make up about 0.00000001 percent of the stuff just in the education cabinets.
    This is all to say that I’m so glad the museum chose to share these images with us. They got me thinking about how far we’ve come in the world of science, and how much more we understand about biology now. In the 400 years this exhibit spans, we see how much more accurate and less fantastical the illustrations became. The drawings also serve to bring the past into the present within the context of the museum. The etching of the “De Aquitilibus” (octopus) is reminiscent of the octopus hanging in the air in the Hall of Biodiversity, and if you feel that Dürer’s drawing of the rhino is strangely textured, go check out an actual rhino in the Akeley Hall of AfricanMammals. It’s all here.
    The reproductions are detailed and colorful and make a strong point about the power of illustration and observation in scientific inquiry (my favorite, by the way, is probably the horseshoe crabs). We see the development of the importance of observation and study in science. It is an especially great exhibit to explore the intersections between art and science, to think about how drawing has been employed historically. To again ask the question, “what is art?”.
    These delightful illustrations can be enjoyed through aesthetic or scientific lenses. I learned about the life cycle of a moth in this exhibit, and was also entranced by beautiful contrast, detail and pattern. As an educator, I found hundreds of entry points for lessons for all ages in this exhibit. The curator’s phrase, “hidden gems” really does describe these works perfectly. (check out: to see curator Tom Baione’s video on the project). If only they hadn’t put them in a deteriorating hallway

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