Beat the British

While Alfred Russell Wallace was exploring the Malay Archipelago, the Dutch scientific community became nervous. During the eight years he spent studying the Malayan fauna, he and his assistants collected thousands of specimens, many of them yet to be described. Meanwhile, the European Natural History museums were investing large sums of money – and even their collectors’ lives –  to expand their collections with those precious exotic specimens, gathered during ambitious expeditions in the colonies. Science was the museums’ first goal, but not without a political agenda: a race to international prestige.

The curators at the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (in Leiden, The Netherlands, now the Naturalis Biodiversity Center) were particularly concerned with beating their British colleagues to the best spots and specimens.  And this little piece of the history of natural history has had its repercussions for us, curators two centuries later trying to establish the type status of these particular specimens, and for the taxonomists working on those groups. Continue reading

When disaster strikes (or, what to do with manuscript names?)

When entomologist Lambertus Toxopeus died in a tragic motor accident in 1951, his ongoing research froze in time and the notes, labels and drawers he had been working on remained untouched for decades. He was planning a revision of a few butterfly groups, including some lace-wing butterflies and quite a few Nymphalid genera. In the Naturalis collection, many specimens bear his handwritten labels, with new species and subspecies names and the intended type status of those particular specimens. However, because Toxopeus never had the chance to publish any of these revisions, these manuscript names have caused a great deal of confusion since the 1950’s. How should we deal with this problem?  Continue reading

Historians between fishes

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“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.   Continue reading

Oh, this old thing?

RMNH collection catalogue

4 volumes of the RMNH Lepidoptera catalogue, ca. 1930.

In the Naturalis archives there is a handwritten catalogue listing the specimens from the butterfly collection. It was finished in the early 1930’s. It consists of several bundles of loose pieces of paper, hundreds of them, kept tied together with ribbons between cardboard wrappers. Besides its potential historical interest, it is incomplete, unpractical and unsearchable. The taxonomy has changed, many species names are different or synonymized and all drawers have been rearranged. The old catalogue seems quite useless. But is it?

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A curator’s challenges

RMNH collection Naturalis Biodiversity Center, 2015

In March 2014, after 12 years as a collection manager at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the oportunity arose for me to become the curator of the butterfly collection. I greedily took it. The collection is jaw-dropping big, rich and interesting. It contains more than 18.000 drawers full of butterflies of great scientific and cultural value. My first challenge was to create a bit of order in the chaos I inherited.

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