Monday, February 17, 2020

Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library, edited by Tom Baione

A masterful exhibition of science history, book history, and art
Walk into any public library in America and you’re likely to find a shelf devoted to “Staff Picks.” Imagine that same idea applied to an institution with one of the world’s greatest collections of historical science books, where all the staff hold doctoral degrees and are experts in their fields. The result is the American Museum of Natural History’s 2012 publication entitled Natural Histories, edited by Tom Baione. The subtitle, Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library is no mere boasting and aptly describes what you will find between the covers of this wonderful book.

Natural Histories profiles twenty stunning illustrated texts, arranged chronologically from Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalum of 1551 to Emile-Alain Séguy’s volumes on Butterflies and Insects from the 1920s. Each entry takes up two two-page spreads, which is enough space to reproduce five or six beautiful full-color illustrations. The images are accompanied by brief essays, written by the museum’s curators, research associates, directors, and librarians, that detail the production of these historical volumes and explain each book’s scientific importance. Though the book features several well-known naturalists such as John James Audubon, John Gould (both known for their birds, but featured here for their mammals), Charles Darwin (Voyage of the Beagle), and Ernst Haeckel (Art Forms of Nature), the contents also include the work of many lesser-known figures, making for an eye-opening educational experience. It brought to my attention several natural history texts of which I was not previously aware. Scanned versions of many of these books can likely be found at online sources such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library or HathiTrust.

Most of the historic books profiled in this volume are zoological treatises, but the scope of natural history the authors cover is broad enough to include other disciplines such as astronomy (the star atlases of Johannes Bayer and Elijah Burritt), anthropology (the Native American portraits of Charles Bird King), geology (William Hamilton’s book on the eruptions of Vesuvius), archaeology (Napoleon’s grand project Description of Egypt), microscopy (Robert Hooke’s Micrographia), and even gemology (Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s buyers’ guide to East Indian jewels). Oddly enough, there are no strictly botanical texts included, but many of the selections do feature birds and insects depicted amid the flowering plants and trees of their natural habitats. As a book designer, I found one of the more interesting entries to be Barbara Rhodes’s brief summary on the gilt-stamped cover designs of popular nature guides of the Victorian era.

This book is sold in a boxed set that also includes 40 loose-leaf print reproductions of historic natural history illustrations that are suitable for framing. This original Natural Histories volume has spawned a series with three sequels so far: Extraordinary Birds, Opulent Oceans, and Innumerable Insects. Unless you have an avid interest in ornithology, marine biology, or entomology, Natural Histories is a good one to start with because you get a little bit of everything. This beautifully produced book will please any reader with an interest in natural history, wildlife art, or the history of books.
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