Yesterday I went to the Natural History Museum at Tring to see this exhibition, part of a series of events called Darwin200. It’s only a tiny exhibition with few exhibits but the precious jewels which are on display make it worthwhile:
- a case of gorgeous coleoptera collected by Alfred Russel Wallace
- Wallace’s own copy of On the origin of species, sent to him by Darwin’s publisher, with the words ‘From the Author’ written on the title page
- a number of bird of paradise skins, all collected in the Malay archipelago by Wallace in the 1850s
- one of Wallace’s notebooks, one of the very few things he managed to save when the ship he was travelling back from South America on caught fire and sank, resulting in the loss of most of his collection
- skins of a cockatoo and a barbet collected by Wallace (but more on that story later)
But there is so much to see round the rest of the NHMus at Tring that I have to limit myself. Yesterday, inspired by the Wallace, I thought that Iâ€™’d just look closely at any beetles that caught my eye, and the birdies, specifically the birds of paradise. I look more closely when Iâ€™m drawing â€“ you have to â€“ so I got out my sketchbook and got to work. I was thrilled to find specimens of Raggiana’s birds of paradise, the national bird of Papua New Guinea, which are quite well lit at Tring, many of the exhibits are not. Wallace was fascinated with birds of paradise and they have become a symbol of his work, just as Darwin’s are perhaps Galapagos finches or fancy pigeons.
Next I went upstairs, and surveyed the cases of insects which are kept closed to prevent the light from damaging them. As I opened each one, I felt like a tiny girl at Christmas unwrapping pressies: ‘What’s in this one? Woo! Massive colourful stick insects! Iridescent butterflies! Beetles shining like gemstones!’ I made some quick sketches.
Anyway, enough of that, I know you want to know about that cockatoo and barbet I mentioned earlier. When Wallace was travelling in the Malay archipelago, he noticed that certain creatures appeared on some islands but not others, even though the islands were close neighbours; he found cockatoos on Lombok, but not on Bali next door. He found barbets on Bali, but not Lombok. Why? What he’d found was an imaginary biogeographic line, now known as the Wallace line marking out the zoogeographic range of creatures between Asia and Australia. Similar lines of species distribution can be found elsewhere in the world. I’m reading a fascinating and refreshingly accessible book by David Quammen at the moment, called The Song of the Dodo which covers more about this. For anyone with the vaguest interest in natural history, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I wish I’d been taught this stuff as school.
Below, my sketch of the cockatoo and barbet specimens that Wallace collected in 1854: