What a Glass Menagerie in Harvard Tells Us About the Art of Science

Suvasini Ramaswamy in The Wire:

ScreenHunter_1605-Jan.-07-18In the middle of Harvard’s bustling campus lies a time capsule – a glass menagerie from a bygone era.

It is housed in Victorian cabinets proudly displaying nearly 4,300 three-dimensional botanical specimens, representing some 840 species of plants from 170 different families. In addition to their evergreen and brilliantly natural hues, they are also pristinely delicate and over a century old. They are in fact historical relics; from a time when scientific study of the natural world was plagued by the limitations of time and resources, and when, unlike today, problems of distance, transport, storage and preservation were not trivial matters. Their tale is one of wonder that is shaped by the primal human obsession to collect and create, and the narrative begins in Renaissance Europe.

When Europe woke up in the 16th century after the dark ages, status-conscious royals, nobles, physicians and apothecaries – anyone who could afford to – began assembling eclectic objects. Wnderkammern, or ‘cabinets of curiosity’ as they were called, are the ancestors of our modern day museums. They expressed the beautiful, the monstrous, and the exotic: preserved flora and fauna, scientific instruments, objects of art and genetic mutations. They began as odes to idiosyncrasy but soon transformed into precursors of a scientific quest that continues till today. One of the earliest steps in this transformation was the development of a universal classification system in 1753 by Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). A Swedish botanist, Linnaeus believed that “the first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves” and thus devised a simple, beautiful and instructive way to classify all living things using two word names in Latin – first identifying the genus, and the second, the species.

More here. [Thanks to Siddharth Varadarajan.]