Natural Histories: 500 Years of Rare Scientific Illustrations from the American Museum of Natural History Archives
A lavish celebration of the intersection of art, science, and technology.
By Maria Popova
Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (public library) brings together an extraordinary collection of works from the Rare Book Room and Rare Book Collections of the American Museum of Natural History’s Research Library, spanning five centuries of anthropology, astronomy, earth science, paleontology, and zoology representing all seven continents. Each highlighted work is accompanied by a short essay exploring its significance, what makes it rare — scarcity, uniqueness, age, binding type, size, value, or nature of the illustrations — and its place in natural history.
Tom Baione, who oversees AMNH’s library and who edited the collection, notes in the introduction:
The stories behind the works selected, these natural histories, not only tell the story of the history of science and art over the last five hundred years, but also of the advances and revelations of science and technology during the age of print. While still tools for science, these works endure as small monuments to the achievements and struggles involved in the study of natural science over the centuries.
What makes many of these illustrations particularly fascinating is that they represent a brief slice of history in the evolution of visual representation — after the advent of photography in the early 20th century, many of these lavish artistic illustrations were supplanted by photographic images, which shifted science to a much more aesthetically sterile approach to describing and depicting species. They’re also a heartening and enduring example of the magic that lies at the intersection of art and science as scientists not only sought out the best artists to illustrate their articles, but also versed themselves in drawing and produced exquisite artworks of their own.
The most striking element of Haeckel’s illustrations in Kunstformen der Natur is the startling arrangement of the life forms depicted — especially the microscopic subjects. it appears almost as if some unseen magnetic force had aligned them and arranged each in perfect position for viewing. This maximized the real estate on the paper and allowed the greatest number of related organisms to be studied and admired. While the result was artistic, the intention was educational and scientific. For Haeckel, illustrating and sharing his observations was a way to convey knowledge and information about the natural world. While some scientists observed and described connections between similar forms and functions to show relatedness between animals, Haeckel’s vision and documentary skills went a step further, illustrating similar creatures together, so that anyone — scientists or not — could clearly see their relatedness. As a fervent believer in Darwinian evolutionary theory, he merely pointed out to his viewers the logic of the theory by providing them with a view by which they could see the obvious connections for themselves.
The book comes in a beautiful slip-case containing 40 stunning, frame-ready prints: