Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Carded cotton, bark cloths, a pair of socks and New Zealand flax were some of the textile objects mentioned in connection to collections of natural history by Carl Linnaeus’ seventeen apostles in their travel journals and correspondence. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) noted, for instance from Japan in 1776: ‘On the 26th of May, before we left this place, we made a purchase of several elegant, but small, boxes of shells, which were laid up very neatly and curiously on carded cotton. These are generally bought by the Dutch, either to sell again, or to send to Europe to their friends and relations, as rarities from so distant a country. Although the shells were all fastened to the cotton with glue made of boiled rice, in order that they might not fall off, I picked out as many as were not before known in Europe, or at least very scarce, and which are now kept amongst other collections of the Academy at Uppsala.’ This essay will look closer at display methods and interior spaces used for such “curious” objects.
One of the travelling apostles, the naturalist Fredrik Hasselquist (1722-1752) was deeply in debt at the time of his death in February 1752, due to that his collections were kept in Smyrna [today Izmir] by his creditors. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was extremely anxious to get the whole affair sorted out and arrange for the young apostle’s collected natural specimens and objects of curiosity to be transported to Sweden. Queen Lovisa Ulrika of Sweden, who had already embarked on a collection of natural history specimens in the 1740s, was in the end persuaded to help. She had the financial resources to buy Hasselquist’s collection while also wishing to augment her already considerable natural history cabinet. She redeemed the collection in 1754 at a price of 14,000 Daler in copper coins [Rixdollar copper coin]; a collection comprising a considerable quantity of natural history objects, manuscripts, antiques and ethnographic objects from the areas he visited during his travels. Moreover, Linnaeus had his apostle’s diary published in 1757. Although the major part of Hasselquist’s avidly collected items from his sojourn in the eastern Mediterranean region ended up in his home country, there were evidently some still left in Smyrna with the consul Anders Rydelius, which the natural historian Peter Forsskål (1732-1763) mentioned in his diary writing almost a decade later: ‘I was also shown several curious remnants from Dr Hasselquist’s original collections which had not been brought to Sweden with the rest’. Whether those parts of the collection, which were seen in June of 1761, remain in Smyrna, have been lost or been brought to Sweden at a later date is not known. As far as is known, Hasselquist did not collect any textile ethnographic artefacts except for a mummy with its linen shroud from Egypt, originally kept in the Drottningholm Palace. Today the mummy is to be found in the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities’ collection in Stockholm, dating 945-656 BC. Hasselquist’s collections have over more than two centuries been dispersed, as have other collected natural history and ethnographic specimens collected by Lovisa Ulrika, and divided between their original milieus at Drottningholm Palace and various museum collections in Sweden.
Whilst Peter Forsskål took part as a naturalist in The Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia from January 1761 up to his death in July 1763. During this time he made some comparable notes in his journal from what he had studied at a cabinet in Sweden before his travels. Foremost, in the strategically situated port of Smyrna for exports as well as imports, where the European merchants had had important connections for over a hundred years by the time Forsskål arrived. There he observed, a kind of mussel called ‘Pinnae ’ (Pinna nobilis), which was to be eaten raw or fried in oil. It was, however, the “wool” or sea silk attached to the mussel which was described as of a sea-green colour, fine as silk and which could easily be spun. Besides, it was noted: ‘There is a pair of socks worked from this flax in the Cabinet at Drottningholm in Sweden’. Maybe there were budding hopes that those plentiful mussels could in the future become a beneficial complement to other spinning materials for the production of clothes and interior textiles.
Privately owned museums were built on a long tradition of earlier cabinets of curiosity in Europe, displayed in various formats from one single cupboard to spacious collections stretching over a number of rooms. Including that many specimens were preferred to be exhibited in specially designed uniform wooden glass display cabinets, to give the visitors or guests a close-looking view as well as protecting the objects. At times well-to-do individuals collected specimens themselves, or more often paid others to acquire the desired objects, made exchanges with similar minded collectors in their network or made purchases at auctions. Influence by barter and local traditions became extensive in a “global collecting aim” for the travelling naturalists et al. Where journals, correspondence, etc. give evidence for that local indigenous people often had a central active role in such frequent exchange of objects and knowledge. The general curiosity of almost everything during the period together with the increasing aim to systematise Nature and the myriad of associates involved, also came to inspire some individuals to establish museums in 18th century Europe, which will be looked at more closely in a forthcoming publication.
This essay is part of the ongoing textile and natural history project: ’Personal Belongings and Collections on 18th Century Travels’.