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Natural History

Collections And The Growth Of Natural History

Buffon and Linnaeus, although different in perspective, each contributed to molding natural history and inspiring others. They had each relied primarily on natural history collections for their work, rather than going out into the field in search of information. The fourteen thousand species of plants and animals described by Linnaeus, and the extensive accounts of quadrupeds, birds, and minerals that comprise Buffon's thirty-six volumes, reflected the extensive empirical base of knowledge available in private and public collections in the later half of the eighteenth century. But as impressive as the collections were compared to those of the previous century, they were just the beginning. An enormous expansion of natural history collections took place in the early nineteenth century and completely transformed them as well as natural history. Explorers, colonial officials, traveling naturalists, and commercial natural history houses had supplied collectors in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, however, a new wave of European colonial expansion began, one reflecting the vast industrial and commercial revolutions that had been taking place in western Europe. Merchants and governments increasingly sought international markets and commercial products, and with these new developments there came what must have seemed like limitless opportunities for the collection of plants, animals, and minerals. The resulting new collections were not only larger, but they were more scientifically valuable because trained collectors in the field were instructed in what was of scientific interest. They knew how to adequately preserve specimens and how to label them with appropriate information.

Combined, the new opportunities to collect on a global scale made a new sort of natural history collection possible. Until the end of the eighteenth century, most natural history collections had been primarily amateur ones whose owners were not scientists and who did not publish anything other than the occasional catalog. The reorganization during the French Revolution of the royal garden into a national museum of natural history provided a new model and led to the establishment of the leading natural history collection in the world for many decades. The new public and semi-public museums that were inspired by the Paris museum had professional curators who were active scientists.

Not only did the nature of the collections change in the early nineteenth century, but the number of individuals involved in the study of natural history increased dramatically. In large part, this reflected the many new opportunities that became available for those interested in the subject. Not only were more museums created, with curator positions, but also private companies supplied paid positions for those willing to travel to exotic places to collect specimens. The increase in literacy and the revolution in printing created new markets for those interested in writing for the general public. As a consequence, more people came to be engaged in the study of natural history, and the subject became, overall, more rigorous and more specialized.

Although the specialization in natural history created new specialized subdisciplines, such as ornithology and entomology, the legacy of Linnaeus and Buffon continued to guide research—that is, description, classification, and the search of a general order in nature. New empirical data raised interesting new questions. The carefully collected and labeled specimens that poured into European collections showed interesting patterns of distribution of animals and plants. Fossils from local and exotic quarries led researchers to ponder the relationship of extinct forms to contemporary ones. And the immense number of specimens showed that even within a species there was an astonishingly large amount of variation. What did it all mean?

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