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.

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