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BEGINNING OF COLLECTIONS


At first glance, the movement of huge collections of zoological specimens from the Neotropics to the private cabinets and public museums of Europe bears an unfortunate resemblance to the other, more serious forms of colonial exploitation. In fairness, however, before the nineteenth century there were no institutions in Latin America to which the collections could have gone. Even later, “only considerable patience, fortitude and determination allowed naturalists at the outposts of civilization to realize their ambition of amassing collections containing significant material” (Sheets-Pyenson 1988, 71).  Those that were established were subject to local caprices and the vagaries of frequently changing governments. For instance, when Pedro I was crowned emperor of Brazil, in 1822, the National Museum was made to surrender all but two of its specimens of channel-billed toucans, so that the feathers could be stripped to create a royal mantle (Sick 1993, 34). Another example is the natural history museum in Buenos Aires, which was well funded for a time, then starved for appropriations, with the result that the director, Hermann Burmeister, had to spend his own money to maintain the collections, which nonetheless fell into a wretched state (ibid., 63).

From the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century the birds collected, both living and dead, were mainly intended for viewing. The living birds were kept in aviaries (some containing hundreds of species), the specimens in “cabinets of curiosities” – Wunderkammern in German – where all manner of objects, natural and manmade, were arranged in galleries dedicated to their display.  The ordering was arbitrary and often chaotic, based as much on aesthetic whim as on science, the chief purpose “to show that God is prolific, prodigious, and ingenious” (Asma 2001, 78).  The advent of systematic taxonomy, marked by the publication of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae in 1735, began to change the emphasis of collecting from display to description, requiring many more specimens to make possible the discernment of patterns in avian morphology. As the nineteenth century progressed, the specimens came, by the tens of thousands, to museums and collectors all over Europe. The most prominent collections were in London and Paris, but other locations also had significant collections: The Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw at one time housed the “holotypes” – the individual specimens from which species are  described to science – for 148 species of South American birds (Mlíkovský 2009). The zeal with which specimens were sought was well articulated by the American ornithologist Elliott Coues, who admonished the aspiring collector to acquire “all you can get – with some reasonable limitations – say fifty or a hundred of any but the most abundant and widely diffused species” (Coues 1884, 12).

All specimens were desirable, but careers were made by the description of species “new to science.”  However, without means of fast communication, museum workers describing specimens as new in one place often had little knowledge of what their colleagues were announcing as new elsewhere, resulting in taxonomic chaos, the same species given different binomial names at different times by different scientists.  Or as expressed by a rather impatient Carl Hellmayr, who spent much of his professional life sorting out the mess, “The ornithologist beginning work in a new field, however clever he may be, should keep in mind that not everything new to him must necessarily be new to science” (Hellmayr 1921, 173).