|Three of my brother's many Hagstrom guitars.|
As a child I collected stamps and coins for a little while then lost interest. Now, as a vegetation ecologist obligated to document what I’ve found, I find I have to force myself to collect. In contrast, one of my brothers definitely has the collecting gene. He started with stamps and coins but then settled on seashells. Years later as an adult with an income, he pursued his true passion -- Swedish electric guitars.
Collecting sometimes seems just an eccentric hobby, but it can serve a broader and important purpose. Richard Fortey came up with the very apt phrase “vouchers for the truth” for scientific collections made on early overseas voyages (Archives of life: Science and collections in Bill Bryson’s Seeing further. The story of science, discovery, and the genius of the Royal Society.) Returning expeditions brought novel and exciting artifacts of all kinds. For example, in 1789 the talk of the town in London was an exhibition of specimens and artifacts from James Cook’s voyage around the world. Rev. W. Sheffield, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, wrote enthusiastically to a friend:
... it would be absurd to attempt a particular description of what I saw ... I passed almost a whole day there in the utmost astonishment, could scarce credit my senses ... this room contains all the warlike instruments, mechanical instruments and utensils of every kind, made use of by the Indians in the South Seas from Terra del Fuego to the Indian Ocean ... the different habits and ornaments of the several Indian nations they discovered ... likewise a large collection of insects, several fine specimens of the bread and other fruits preserved in spirits; together with a compleat hortus siccus of all the plants collected in the course of the voyage. The number of plants is about 3000, 110 of which are new genera, and 1300 new species which were never seen or heard of before in Europe. What raptures must they have felt to land upon countries whether everything was new to them! Whole forests of nondescript [undescribed] trees clothed with the most beautiful flowers and foliage, and these too inhabited by several curious species of birds equally strangers to them ...
|Joseph Banks at age 15, |
with botanical illustration
|HMS Endeavor, replica|
When his exhibition opened 18 years later, Banks was already famous and his house quickly became an important science and social center of London. Two novel features contributed to the popularity: general public access and the large volume of specimens. Without leaving London people could view for themselves the plant and animal life of exotic far-away places. These specimens were “vouchers for the truth”.
Why are plant specimens still essential as "vouchers for the truth"? See Homo collectus ssp. botanicus