Collection of fossil plants rediscovered

This story gets me very excited about my first forays into museum archives next month...who knows what one might find?

This beautifully presented collection of fossilised plants was found in the vaults of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire. It contains slides displaying samples of vegetation from the Midlands, Wales, and far further afield - there are a small number of specimens which appear to have been collected by Charles Darwin whilst aboard the Beagle. Click through to the British Geological Survey website to read the fascinating story of the collection's assembly through networks of explorers, administrators and scientists.
Slide showing a cross section of tree root from the Midlands, collected by Joseph Hooker in 1846.

Source: D. Hooker collection of microscope slides&sortAttributeId=0&sortDescending=false

My favourite collection so far

In the interest of sticking to my aims and ensuring the blog remains a celebration of incredible collections, I thought I'd share with you a collection which inspired much frenzied scribbling and plenty of exclamation marks in my notes. I came across this collection in Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, by Arthur MacGregor.

Carl Schildbach was an estate manager in Germany in the late eighteenth century, who crafted and compiled a 'Holzbibliothek', or 'wooden library', which eventually contained 546 wooden books.

There was a book for each type of tree or shrub on the estate. Each book was made from the bark of the plant, and consequently they varied in size, although Schildbach devised a method of joining together smaller pieces of bark to form the book when the specimen was not very large. Each panel of the book/box was formed of wood from a different stage in the plant's development; the left panel was made of mature wood, and the right was made of wood from a sapling. Affixed to the outside were cubes of bark, and these specimens illustrated the qualities of the bark under different conditions; as charcoal, for instance, or throughout the changing seasons. These principles of construction are consistent throughout the collection.

Inside each box, the life cycle of the tree is represented in miniature, with specimens of seedlings, including the root and first leaves, as well as written details about the typical development, its taxonomy, its parasites and common forms of rot associated with the tree. Details and examples of fruit and flowers in various stages of bud and bloom are also to be found inside.

I'm not the only one to find this collection absolutely incredible, and it became something of a tourist attraction at the time, spawning several imitators. Sadly there are few photographs on the web of this particular Holzbibliothek, aside from this small one from the museum where it is kept, the Naturkundemuseum im Ottoneum.


Isn't it beautiful? And there are 546 of them!

The collection strikes me as a painstaking labour of love, though this attribution is perhaps somewhat unfounded, especially since I have read that Schildbach was commissioned to create the wooden library by his employer. However, I still think that the wooden books manifest not only his great skill as a craftsman but also a great respect for and knowledge of each single specimen of plant. I would love to play with this collection, stroke each book and carefully open it up to turn over its contents in my hands, but I would settle for just seeing it. Admission to the museum is less than two euros! I just need to get to Germany.

There are lots of interesting theoretical questions raised by the Holzbibliothek about the role of the collector in quite literally forming their collection and exerting their creative influence over it, but I'll leave those for another time, and settle for the moment just to bestow it, and Carl Schildbach, with my utmost admiration.

'Transforming Objects' conference at Northumbria University

This conference looks's in my diary.

Transforming Objects
28-29 May 2012
Northumbria University

Gather round, gather round

Welcome to all!

I am very excited to be starting this new blog, The Curious World of Victorian Collecting. My hope is that it will become an exploratory space for me to reflect on what I have discovered in the course of my research, share ideas and test theories, but primarily my focus is celebration of the incredible capacity of the Victorians to collect.

The blog is supposed to be a joyous one, so I hope things don't get too dry, or too abstract, and that you can share in my fascination with collectors.

My intention is to post once a month, and for each post to speak about a Victorian collector or collection which has excited me recently. The first posts which I have lined up to be published soon are about the Cuming Museum in Southwark, and Enid Marx's interest in Folk Art.

Thanks for joining me.