Historians between fishes


“Interdisciplinary” is a word to look for when reading a project’s description. Here is one for you: A New History of Fishes.

Paul Smith, professor of French Literature at Leiden University, has put together a research team to explore the history of Ichthyology between 1550 and 1880. The team consists of historians of science, art and literature, and of biologists. Last week they visited the fish collections at Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Looking through their eyes, the collections come alive.  

When biologists visit us, we know what to expect: Do you have species X from Suriname? Can I photograph the holotype of species Y? Can you provide the data for specimens A and B? But when historians come, they invariably manage to refresh how we look at the collections.

Paul Smith came to Naturalis with part of his team. With him were PhD candidates Didi van Trijp, Robbert Striekwold and postdoc Marlise Rijks. Collection manager Ronald de Ruiter kindly walked us throught the wet (preserved in alcohol) and dry (mounted) collections. He told us about the history of the collection, its highlights and its preservation. While looking at the jars and sharks with slightly enlarged eyes, our historians asked very different questions than we, collection managers, are used to get.

Historians ask about the origin and evolution of concepts. Of concepts…! About the techniques to preserve specimens and how these influence the way to illustrate and classify nature. Their interest goes to who collected what, and when, and in what manner, and why, and whether or not this is documented. And how it is documented. It’s not about biology. It’s about paintings, books, archives, characters and the evolution of thought and culture. It’s about the birth, life and death of the collections.

If you are a curator, I strongly recommend you get an historian to accompany you from time to time.

New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880

The theoretical framework is the New History of Science, which considers the development of science in a broad cultural and historical framework, including attention to social (patronage, institution), (national-)political, religious and artistic aspects.” The team includes two postdocs, 3 PhD students and several associated researchers. Experts from 4 institutes explore the development of this particular branch of science: the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS), the University of Münster, the Huygens Institute (The Hague) and Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

You might also enjoy these blogs: Fishtories by Sophia Hendrikx, and The Odd Shimp  by Robbert Striekwold. Both authors are PhD candidates of what they lovingly call “the fish project”.


Fish collection at Naturalis, with collection manager Ronald de Ruiter. Photo: Didi van Trijp (@dvantrijp)


One of the thousands of specimens collected by ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker (1819-1878).



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