Well that was fun! I’m sitting on the bus on the way home [editorial note: I wrote most of this on Thursday afternoon], with the memory of the College Commons event that I just went to still fresh in my mind. (That and the tasty food at the end of the event.)
This event (“Discovering the World: Collections, Curiosity and Evolution”) was all about collecting and collections, from the institutional collections we have in our society today such as museums and libraries, through the “cabinets of curiosity” of earlier centuries, to the sort of obsessive collections of random stuff that sort of becomes a disease (I mentally glance over at the shelves, piles, and boxes of old New Yorkers in my house; I’ve not been able to throw away a single one since I started subscribing in the early 90s. Yes, I know, I know… I know.)
So many of these types of collections (and the resulting books and compendia which they themselves become the objects of collections and subjects of books and so on and so forth) formed the foundations of the culture, the raw material for scientific study, the inspiration for more collections and for more study, and so on…. So the event used that as a basis and dug out some wonderful articles for us to look and marvel at. The digging was done at USC’s own splendid Doheny library (original Audubon volumes, Cook’s journals, etc) the Huntington library (several illustrated tomes of natural history and an actual plate used long ago for printing Audubon illustrations which were then later hand-coloured by artists) and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum across the street. A number of my colleagues who are scholars in areas that these objects pertain to gave short, informative and entertaining short chats about the objects on display, and their enthusiasm bubbled and spilled into the audience (the event was not as well attended as one might have hoped, once again – why is it so hard to convince our colleagues to take time out from their usual concerns to join in these things and mix with their colleagues from other departments?) and there was a great deal of excellent chatter after.
After introductory remarks, we had Nancy Lutkehaus (Anthropology and Gender Studies) kick things off with a tour through some of the books and manuscripts with reflection on the time (mostly 18th Century) and people involved, and then Hilary Schor (English, Comparative Literature, and Law) continued in that vein, beginning what would be a focus on Darwin’s involvement in all this (this was also one of the 1859 events), the sorts of collections to which he had access, made himself (she described the sheer volume and variety of material he collected on the famous voyage of the Beagle), and the collectors and collections that inspired and informed his reflections and writings later. She ended with a brief description of why she thinks it is interesting and perhaps important to trace two parallel lines of development, that of the science that arises from collecting and cataloging on the one hand and that of the modern novel on the other, where collecting and cataloging also play a role (well, I think that’s what she said – I’d not thought about that before and don’t know enough about the history of the novel to write something more coherent at this point. If you want to take a stab at it in the comments, go for it. Or ask Hilary for more.)
Dan Lewis of the Huntington Library told us more about the items you can find there, and the kind of people Darwin encountered and whose expertise he relied on to help understand his huge collection, and also to begin cataloging it all. Kimball Garrett of the Natural History Museum focused on birds, and showed us many birds that he brought in from the museum’s enormous collection (none dating back as far as Darwin, but nonetheless an interesting sample of various of the kinds of birds that Darwin was interested in, from the famous finches (that actually aren’t really finches it now turns out – they are tanagers) to their various relatives from around South America to the West Indies, through to the common pigeon that you see around your city (Darwin made a great study of those to further understand variation closer to home). An excellent aspect of what he went into was the mentioning of the fact that scientifically the field is still alive and well, and birds such as the ones he brought in are still used in research. Small samples can be taken (a little clip of a toe maybe, for DNA, a snip of a feather for chemical and isotope analysis to ascertain the environment and mineral conditions that bird had access to) in order to learn a great deal of about the birds’ habitat, environment, patterns of movement, and genetic relationships to one another.
USC College’s David Bottjer (Earth Sciences) ended everything with a discussion and quick history of John James Audubon himself, relating the remarkable story of how he and his famous works came to be. Beginning with his drawing lots of American birds, and then schlepped his drawing equipment (and drawing) all around America and ultimately ending up in the UK in order to eventually find people willing and able to publish those wonderful works (the most famous being Birds of America) which rose to popularity in museums and private residences of the wealthy and so forth. The drawings remain an inspiration to all who see them and are sort of a standard by which illustrated wildlife books are still measured today. The volume we had at the gathering was open to the image of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a famous beautiful bird now almost believed to be extinct, and David supplied (with the help of the Natural History Museum) a (stuffed) ivory-billed woodpecker for us to admire alongside the drawing, pointing out that this is probably as close as we will ever come to the real thing given that it is now gone from the planet…
This was a wonderful event indeed!
A little announcement in my role as a general member of the community and member of the committee that helps puts these things on (guided by your suggestions in response to our calls for proposals): Friends, colleagues, faculty, staff and students at USC: do consider coming to some of them, and spending a little time with your colleagues from other fields. It is a large part of why we do what we do, no? Inquiry and discourse… And it is just fun! See my report on the Tar Pits (and Page Museum) visit last semester for another example…
Find here the calendar of what’s coming up! See you there.