Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Natural History Cabinet of Alfred Russel Wallace, 19th Century





Images © Robert Heggestad 2009 – All Rights Reserved

I just stumbled upon a wonderful collection of photographs documenting specimens from the natural history cabinet of naturalist explorer Alfred Russel Wallace; this incredible cabinet was famously discovered in 1979 at an Arlington Virgina-based antique store by Robert Heggestad. Heggestad--who took the photos you see above and who still owns the cabinet--purchased this amazing cabinet, seen by some to be a national treasure, for a mere $600.

Alfred Russel Wallace, The cabinet's creator, is famous for having come up with a theory of natural selection concurrently with his associate Charles Darwin; a letter he wrote to Darwin detailing his theory--which came to him in a fever dream, as explored compellingly by artist Mark Dion in the piece "The Delirium of Alfred Russel Wallace"-- famously led Darwin to overcome his qualms and publish his own work. The following excerpted text and images above are all from the blog Quigley's Cabinet:
“As you can imagine,” Heggestad writes, “after spending the past three years learning about his multifaceted life, I have become a great Wallace fan.” He notes that the cabinet is no longer on exhibit, but is still at the American Museum of Natural History cared for by Dr. David Grimaldi, Curator of Diptera, Fossil Insects & Lepidoptera, who will publish a paper on the historical and scientific significance of the collection. “I think this is a fabulous thing…a national treasure, actually,” says Dr. Grimaldi.

The collection contains some 1679 specimens in 26 glass-topped drawers that were originally hermetically sealed. “Of dragon-flies, I have many pretty species…” Wallace wrote in a letter from Singapore in 1854, and indeed the cabinet contains 36 dragon and caddis flies (1st image). The drawers in which the 398 butterflies and 294 moths were pinned had been built with a compartment along the front filled with camphor crystals, used to prevent damage to insect collections by other small insects. Wallace’s butterfly specimens include a “cracker” butterfly (Papilio amphinome, 2nd image), native to South America and named for the unusual sound the males produce as part of their territorial displays; a brush-footed butterfly collected in Brazil and commonly known as an “88” because of the pattern on its wings. The moths include a blue underwing, named for the bright hindwings hidden beneath dull forewings, and 2 species of sphinx moth, known for their quick and sustained flying ability, for which they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. Of the sphinx moth, Wallace wrote, “this moth, shortly after its immergence from the cocoon, as shown by the bloom on its unruffled scales, may be seen poised stationary in the air, with its long hair-like proboscis uncurled and inserted into the minute orifices of flowers; and no one, I believe, has ever seen this moth learning to perform its difficult task which requires such unerring aim.”

Among the 396 shells (3rd image) and stones and 86 pods and botanical specimens (4th image) is the fruit of a large leguminous tree of Brazil, the pulpy center of which is pulpy and edible. But perhaps the most intriguing specimen is the skin of an African sun bird (5th image), an Old World bird also reminiscent of hummingbirds because of the iridescent coloration of the males.

The collection also includes a British butterfly that is now extinct, fireflies and bedbugs captured by Wallace when he was 11 years old, and glasswing butterflies. The cabinet includes 2 specimens of the death’s-head moth featured in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Wallace gathered insects with “protective resemblances” - beetles that look like dewdrops, and moths that look like leaves, sticks, and bird droppings – and insects that mimic each other. He had many examples of protective coloration. He collected multiples of a single species to show individual variation. Wallace believed “that a superior intelligence, acting nevertheless through natural and universal laws, has guided the development of man in a definite direction and for a special purpose” - a more theistic view than Darwin, and the equivalent of today’s theory of “intelligent design.”
You can read this story in its entirety and see the full image collection (from which the above were excerpted) by clicking here. You can read more about the discovery of the cabinet by Mr. Heggestad by clicking here. To find out more about Alfred Russel Wallace, click here. To find out more about Mark Dion's artpiece, click here.

3 comments:

holly aka golly said...

Exquisite!

BlueTerracotta said...

Fabulous! Great read and I could look at these photos all day!

frabotta said...

Got a chance to see the cabinet on display at AMNH and it was incredible... I will say that the Secret Museum exhibit at Observatory had many of the same qualities! It's important to clarify that as the "cabinet's creator", Wallace not only assembled this exquisite natural history collection, but also constructed the cabinet itself!