Trading Nature

FP Dodd with butterfly net in his garden at Kuranda / Photographer: unknown / Source: Queensland Museum

Professor Deirdre Coleman, Chief Investigator on a McCoy seed grant between the Melbourne Museum and the University of Melbourne, was funded by the Australian Research Council to present her research on George Lyell at ‘Trading Nature’, a conference in York, UK. The conference, held in June, was on the role of agents, dealers and commercial enterprises in (mainly) 19th century natural history. It was sponsored by the Society for the History of Natural History, a UK body established in 1936 by a small group of librarians, bibliographers, and naturalists associated with the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. True to the origins of this Society, one of the best things about the York conference was its gathering together of a diverse group of researchers, enthusiasts and specialists: librarians, scientists, curators, archivists, PhD students, and academics from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

Our Australian panel opened the conference, with Professor Simon Ville, an economic historian from the University of Wollongong who raised some of the big questions presented by the trade in natural history items in the 19th century. Using some highly informative slides he pointed out that, unlike other global commodity items such as wool, natural history specimens presented unique logistical challenges, being highly heterogenous in nature and unstable across long-haul and irregular shipping routes. Determining the price of (often) poorly understood specimens amongst a diverse set of buyers, sellers and collectors from all over the world presented yet more challenges. In slides he used maps to plot the global network of agents used by individuals (Macleay) and institutions (Australian Museum). He also detailed the wide range of transaction choice, from purchase, barter, exchange and donation, as well as the type of control exercised by practical naturalists in the field who could collect in bulk and thus maintain competitive prices.

Gerard Krefft with the newly discovered Manta Ray, Manta alfredi, 1869 / Photographer: Henry Barnes / Source: Australian Museum 

Vanessa Finney, Manager of Archives, Rare Books and Library Collections at the Australian Museum, Sydney, spoke next on how the markets for natural history developed and matured, as natural history morphed into natural science during the 19th century. In examining the professionalisation of natural history between 1860-1890, her focus was on the two Curators who built the Australian Museum’s collections, Gerard Krefft and Edward Ramsay. With riveting data from the archive, she showed how the purchase of books kept pace with the inflow of specimen. The net result of this was that the Museum had less need to send specimens to imperial centres with their scientific experts, superior libraries and vast collections for full analysis and verification. Photography also played a major role in the retention of material in Australia, as photos could be sent as surrogates for the actual fossils or specimens. Vanessa spoke more generally on the entanglement of natural history with colonial and social prestige and nation-building.

FP Dodd with case 65 of the Queensland Museum Collection containing Coscinocera Hercules, 1930s / Photographer: unknown / Source: Queensland State Library

Professor Deirdre Coleman spoke last, on the correspondence she transcribed in the Museums Victoria Archives between Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, a pioneering insect breeder, collector and dealer and George Lyell, an amateur lepidopterist who shared Dodd’s passion for moths as well as his minute and obsessive attention to all aspects of his entomological craft, from capture in the field to perfect preservation and pinning in the workshop. In the end Lyell donated his extensive insect collection (50,000 specimens) to the National Museum of Victoria (as it was then called), a donation which required him over many years to amalgamate his own insects with the National Museum’s much smaller holdings. Both men, although important in their time, are now forgotten. And yet Dodd not only sold thousands of lepidoptera specimens to some of the world’s wealthiest collectors, he also brought far north Queensland’s tropical entomology to the attention of south-east Australia. In her slides Deirdre showed examples of the large Aenetus mirabilis which Dodd sold for high prices; she also showed him in his garden in Kuranda on the Atherton tableland in far north Queensland. But the most tweeted slide from her PowerPoint was the remarkable insect case in which Dodd arranged lepidoptera of various slides and colours to pick out the following lines in praise of Mother Nature from a popular poem by Longfellow:

And whenever the way seemed long
Or his heart began to fail
SHE would sing a more wonderful song
Or tell a more marvelous tale.FP Dodd created this verse from Longfellow in tiny moths, c.1918 / Source: Queensland Museum

Written by Professor Deirdre Coleman, lead researcher on the McCoy Seed Fund Project ‘George Lyell Collection: Australian Entomology Past and Present’. Nik McGrath, Archivist, Museums Victoria, is the coordinator at Museums Victoria, with colleague Simon Hinkley, Collection Manager, Entomology and Arachnology. Dr Alex Hankinson, a PhD in natural history in the Romantic Period, is now working with Prof Coleman at the University of Melbourne and is a new addition to our project team.