Contributed Papers

Collecting and Classifying in Natural History

Presenter 1

What the [Eighteenth Century] Whalemen Knew: Vernacular Maritime Knowledge in Lacépède's Histoire naturelle des cétacées (1804)

Céline M. Stantina

McGill University


In 1804, the comte de Lacépède (1756-1825) completed the series of Buffon's Histoires Naturelles with a last volume on the most mystical creatures of all: cetaceans . The president of the chair of zoology of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle of Paris was a refined writer, but William Scoresby (1760-1829)-a successful whaler-met Lacépède at the end of his life and recalled, « [he] was nevertheless very polite and friendly and acknowledged that not having seen whales he had taken everything from research .»
If Lacépède composed his classic work of cetology with the help of published books and articles, in addition to facts collected by friends of the Museum and the Institut National, much information on the mysterious species remained unreferenced in his book. Given their size, weight and incredible capacity to remain unseen underwater for a long time, whales were particularly challenging to study and hence required widening the scope of standard zoological source collection. The operating hypothesis of this presentation is to highlight the importance of vernacular zoological knowledge created by whalers and its incorporation in a scientific publication written by an armchair naturalist. While relying on printed sources and archives of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle of Paris, the theoretical framework of this presentation will consider the Latourian actor/network theory but will also 'relocate' the place of production of knowledge to the decks of the whaling ships. This presentation will also pay attention to the question of credibility and authority in the circulation of vernacular maritime knowledge.


Presenter 2

Collecting Copper Mountain: The First Botanical Collection in Denali National Park, Ynes Mexia, 1928

Kathryn Davis

San Jose State University


Ynes Mexia spent most of her botanical career collecting in Mexico and South America where she made one of the most complete botanical collections to date. But one summer she traveled north to conduct what may have been the first official botanical collection in what is now Denali National Park in Alaska. She had been invited by the park superintendent, and while simultaneously planning an extended collecting trip to South America in the fall, she boarded a ship for Alaska in June. She spent a month alone in the mountains, having been brought in over 3 days by pack train from Savage Camp. Once left by the packers, she was on her own with three pack dogs to carry her collecting equipment. She spent most of her time collecting at Copper Mountain, but also collected near the Muldrow Glacier, and at Wonder Lake. This paper explores the collecting trip using her field notes and letters, which also provide a glimpse of the Park in 1928. It is part of a larger biographical exploration of her work as a botanical collector and explorer from 1925 to 1938.


Presenter 3

Early Modern Classification of New World Insects

Deirdre Moore

Harvard University


During the early modern period emerging old world classification systems encountered new world insects for the first time. These insects were received by Europeans sometimes through illustrations and sometimes in the form of the dried bodies of the insects themselves. New world insects joined old world specimens in assemblages intended to establish emerging classification systems. One of the first of these encounters is an enormous Virginian Tiger Swallowtail from John White's 1585 watercolor that appears among an array of European insects in an original manuscript currently held at the British Museum. This illustration is eventually published as a woodblock illustration in 1634 in Thomas Moffett's 'Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum'. This image went on to be viewed by figures such as John Ray involved in the critical early classification of new world plants and insects.


Presenter 4

Facets of Fossils during the Nineteenth Century: Vertical Territory, National Heritage and Deep Time Framing

Victor Monnin

University of Strasbourg


A great body of literature details the historical evolution of fossils as geological and paleontological objects. It distinguishes crucial episodes within the history of meanings applied to fossils. Complementary, and often disruptive, approaches to this literature have also made clear that fossils had and continue to have multiple facets at the interface between different practices, settings, and cultures.
At the crossroad of these works, we investigate the emergence of fossils as scientific objects during the nineteenth century in an integrated fashion-addressing their relations to the history of governmentality, national heritage and the framing of deep time on a global scale. The collection of fossil data proved to not only have been critical in scientific endeavors, but also in the exploration of territories and the control over their verticality and resources. Fossils progressively acquired their form as scientific objects through the publication of synoptic tables, atlases, and illustrated periodicals. Associated to specific regions of a country or colony, fossils simultaneously tainted the perception of the landscapes they were found in and enriched the imagined heritage of the nations who found them. The use of fossils as stratigraphic labels played both a central role in the establishment of the geological time scale and in the promotion of certain regional strata as global references. Thus, the framing of deep time based on index fossils gained symbolic and strategic significance in the context of territorial expansion.
Our presentation will highlight the merging of methods and questions specific to this integrated investigation on fossils in the nineteenth century. It will include samples of case studies related to France and Algeria, Great Britain and Australia, as well as to the early years of the State of California.