After watching a documentary exploring the significance of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, I decided to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum. In 1858, Wallace independently from Charles Darwin devised the theory of natural selection. The Natural History Museum, originally part of the British Museum, is located in a beautifully designed Romanesque Victorian building. The NHM opened in 1880 to house the naturalist collection of the British Museum. The museum became independent in 1963 with the passing of the British Museums Act after nearly a century of ongoing heated debates.
I found the subtle melding between display material popular in the Victorian period and the museum’s modern exhibits fascinating. No place is the changing taste of museum displays as discernable as the walk between the Victorian Birds Gallery and the modern Earth Hall. Strolling into the Birds Gallery, one is immediately plunged into a room overflowing with Victorian curiosities of the avian variety. The gallery is lined with wood cases containing taxidermy birds dating from the 18th and 19th century. The preserved specimens range from swans to birds of paradise and extinct species like the two Mauritius dodos. Towards the middle of the gallery is the eye catching display of over one hundred hummingbirds opposite cabinets containing just the feet and beaks of avian specimens. Nowadays, this type of museum display has fallen out of fashion. According to the Natural History Museum’s website, “instead of actively collecting, the museum now focuses its work on a range of conservation projects.” The bird gallery is only a small fraction of the specimens available in the museums ornithological collection.
Ornithology began as a scientific discipline in the 18th century but grew into a respected specialization during the Victorian period. Alfred Russel Wallace made his living collecting birds for wealthy collectors. Wallace’s ornithological collecting expeditions lead to his theories on the origin of species. Darwin too was influenced by the study of birds, most famously the Galapagos Finches. This period saw the popularity of collecting birds for museums or private collections.
The Natural History Museum’s avian collection represents 95% of the world’s bird population. Holdings include 15,000 skeletons, 700,000 skins, 4,000 eggs, 17,000 spirit specimens, and 400,000 sets of eggs. The skin collection houses the largest single collection of bird type specimens in the world. While most of the birds date from the 19th century, with the earliest dating from Captain Cook’s expedition in the 1770s, the collection continues to grow through donations. Please note that present day birds specimens are not killed specifically for the collection. Several notable scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Walter Rothschild have contributed specimens to the museum. Similar to herbariums, the avian collection is utilized by researchers studying global distribution, taxonomic relationships, seasonal or age differences, and identifying new species. The Natural History Museum’s ornithological collection expands the definition of an archive as an institution that not only collects valued paper records but important scientific biological material as well.