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Thursday
Dec062012

Hidden treasures of Stockholm

I was invited to Stockholm at the end of November by the IK foundation, which was celebrating, with a day-long seminar, the launch of the digital editions of the important Linnaeus Apostles series. This means that the 5,000-odd pages of the Apostles' journals, which I wrote about in February 2012, are finally serachable and accessible to researchers and the public for free. It was a nice event held in the Swedish Parliament; Sweden is such a sensible nation that you barely have to pass through any security to get into the Parliament; it's just expected that you'll behave yourself.

I gave a half-hour talk about my own experience with the Linnaeus Apostles --- the rest of the talks were in Swedish, and though many sounded great I could only nod dumbly. Swedes speak excellent English, so some guests generously filled me in during the lunch break as to what was actually being said. 


The day before the talk, I visited the Swedish Museum of Natural History. If it were in the center of town, it would probably be a highly profitable tourist enterprise with gift shops on every floor like so many natural history museums on good real estate. Instead it's on the outskirts, part of the university campus, which perhaps gives it less pressure to get with the times.  

And it's filled, as you might expect, with some interesting exhibits, which the highly decorated botanist Bertil Nordenstam (look for "B.Nord" on plant species to find him -- he is immortal) 

 

was kind enough to show me. Glass cabinets, egg collections, awkward 18th century taxidermy are in abundance, and thankfully. More recent collections were contributed by a professional elephant hunter later killed by an elephant.

One of the most interesting collections of all is not on display -- it's Sweden's share (not the lion's share) of the Linnaean herbaria, most of which ended up in London after being sold by Linnaus' widow, and around which the Linnean society was formed. But Sweden still has at least one fire safe's worth of Linnaean specimens, just kind of sitting there in the hallway of the botany building. Now, having seen the Joseph Banks herbaria at London's Natural History Museum, portions of which are unveiled coquettishly to the public on two tours daily, this presentation seemed jarringly modest. Nordenstam had to fiddle with the key a bit. 

 

and there it was.


 

The individual plant specimens in the collection -- some of them types -- have all been electronically imaged and catalogued now, but it's thrilling to see them on their papers, at times preserved dry and at times with a mysterious glue that Linnaeus processed from fish. It has held up well over the centuries; you can see it as traces of white surrounding the leaves.  

 

Dr. Nordenstam is able to distinguish the handwriting on each specimen, some of which have been heavily marked and annotated, starting with Linnaeus, or his son Carl, any number of their students. 

This specimen was part of a wealthy collector's private herbarium that Linnaeus was helping curate, I think with the aim to have each illustrated and turned into a book -- at any rate the collector preferred his specimens in little decorative pots.

And this is why 18th century natural history is so much more fun than 21st century natural history.