Yet the urge to create meaning through collection appears to be older than history. In her afterword to this collection of collectors, photographer Rosamond Wolff Purcell notes the discovery of a collection of fossils and lumps of iron pyrite, probably gathered 35,000 years ago, at a Neanderthal site. The earliest of the collections represented here dates back only to the 17th and 18th centuries, but in some respects its meaning seems almost as ungraspable as the Neanderthal antecedent of the Natural History Museum. As well as amassing trophies of the grotesque and the deformed, Peter the Great saved the teeth he extracted, by way of a hobby, from a number of his unfortunate subjects: 'a singer', 'a person who made tablecloths', 'a bishop of Rostov', 'a fast-walking messenger' - but not, as Gould notes, fast enough.
In Peter's collection, the power of autocratic whim placed personal fantasy on an equal footing with scholarly knowledge. As science developed its authority, the collector's imagination was suppressed. But it was never eradicated altogether. Every collector is his own emperor; each is driven by what Gould calls a 'blessed obsession'. In the case of the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins, obsession boiled over into frank madness. Eloquently, the frontispieces of two Hawkins monographs are juxtaposed. One shows ichthyosaurs lazing placidly in a mirror sea; the second depicts the same beasts as dragons, raging in frenzied combat.
Stephen Jay Gould's office at Harvard used to be the main hall of the museum of Louis Agassiz, a giant figure who developed the theory of ice ages and compiled the Victorian age's bible of fossil fishes (and who is accorded two chapters here). As one of the tribe himself - the object of his own special study is a West Indian land snail named Cerion - Gould writes about collecting with sympathy and acuity. He is perhaps at his best when ideas are to the fore, rather than the individuals associated with them, but he remains far and away the most inspiring of popular science writers. He and Purcell are complementary talents. She has an outsider's eye, and her skill is in rearrangement - a word that sends shivers down curatorial spines, but which in her case has achieved results of profound beauty and intelligence. Birds of paradise, lying on beds of their own exquisite feathers, are reinvested with the grace that drains away so lamentably from stuffed birds; the fossil bones of ichthyosaurs shine
bronze and heroic.
There are two flies in this exquisite ointment. One is that slipshod checking has let through a number of typographical errors and at least one mislabelled caption. The other is the inclusion of works by Frederick Ruysch, the Dutch master of anatomy
from whom Peter the Great bought many specimens. Among those of Ruysch's grotesque preparations illustrated here are babies' bodies decorated with beads, and a child's arm, wearing a lace sleeve, holding an eye socket. Gould says that he and Purcell
fought hard for the inclusion of these shocking mysteries, and that we must try to understand them. Yet he almost immediately admits that they are beyond his grasp - an admission that undermines the rationale for publishing them.Reuse content