Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/A Run Through the Museums of Europe
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A Run Through the Museums of Europe
By Thomas Mayo Brewer
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IN 1875-'76 the writer, having a general interest in the science of ornithology, and making a special study of that somewhat neglected branch which relates to the peculiarities of birds' nests and eggs, devoted, at intervals, more than a year to visiting some of the principal museums of the Continent of Europe, and afterward of England. Naturally, in these somewhat hasty observations, his favorite departments received the larger proportion of his attention.
It was his fortune to first place his foot on the Old-World soil in the quiet and lovely, the very quaint and very old-fashioned, little city of Bremen, and there to make the acquaintance of two ornithologists whose reputation is world-wide, and who, among the followers of this science, stand in the front ranks—Dr. Georg Hartlaub and Dr. Otto Finsch.
Dr. Hartlaub is a physician, in full practice, standing at the head of his profession, but finding ample time, without neglecting his professional duties, to devote to the study of his favorite science, and to favor the world with valuable contributions, the results of his careful and exhaustive researches. A little past the prime of life, he is still in full and vigorous health. He has made the birds of Africa his principal study. As incidentally attesting Dr. Hartlaub's popularity and high standing among his brother ornithologists, it may be here mentioned that in Gray's "Hand-List of Birds" are no less than twenty-six different species, and one genus, upon which has been bestowed the name of Hartlaub—a compliment that has been paid to no other naturalist, living or dead, not even to the great Linnæus or to the illustrious Cuvier.
Dr. Finsch, though a much younger man, is fully the peer of his distinguished townsman in his reputation in ornithological science. He is the Director-in-Chief of the Natural History Museum of Bremen, which, though by no means among the largest, enjoys the reputation of being one of the most excellent in its arrangement, in Europe. In regard to this, unfortunately, I had not complete opportunity to judge. A new building was in the course of erection on the site of the old museum, and most of the collections, being packed away, were inaccessible. A portion of the birds were open to inspection, and well attested the taxidermic excellence of their preparation, which is said to characterize not only this department, but the whole museum. Dr. Finsch is author of an excellent and, to the student, invaluable monograph on the parrots; and, although he has largely contributed, with Dr. Hartlaub, to investigate the ornithology of Africa, probably there is no one living more generally familiar than he with the ornithological forms of the world. Since I met him he has been absent from home, in charge of an important exploring expedition to the arctic islands, north of Eastern Asia, from which he has recently returned.
Passing from Bremen to Düsseldorf, on the Rhine, our way took us through the old capital of Westphalia, that quaintest of quaint places, Münster; one, too, made so painfully memorable in history by the Vandal acts of the fanatical Anabaptists, and the even more terrible retribution that was visited upon their leaders. There we made a pause, in order to examine a very remarkable private collection of nests and eggs. It was in the dwelling of one of the prosperous fur merchants of that city, a gentleman of culture, who, without making any pretensions to scientific attainments, had got together one of the largest and richest local collections in oölogy on the Continent of Europe. It contained between seven and eight thousand specimens, well prepared, carefully arranged, and wonderfully rich in suites and varying sets, of the eggs of European (chiefly Prussian) birds. While I afterward saw other private collections that may contain the eggs of more species, I saw none that so fully presented, in series of sets, the eggs of the birds of any one locality. It was an interesting peculiarity that this collection had been commenced by its owner's grandfather, and three generations had made its increase the amusement and study of their leisure moments. Pains had been taken to note the date of each separate acquisition, and such a collection is thus rendered peculiarly interesting to the student of the local ornithology, on account of the light it cannot fail to throw upon the relative abundance and distribution of the birds of the region. Unfortunately for the student of science, such collections as this are rare and exceptional.
In Berne, the capital of Switzerland, is the National Museum of that republic. This contains an immense mass of materials, illustrative of various departments, some of them in good preservation, but others quite the reverse. A commendable effort had been begun to exhibit all the species of the animal kingdom found in Switzerland, but the space allotted is insufficient; the show-cases are ill arranged, and betray an evident want of funds sufficient to keep up to the highest standard what might have been made one of the finest collections of its kind in the world. One contributor had given to the museum what must have been in its day a very fine collection of the nests and eggs of the birds of Switzerland, including several eggs of that now nearly extinct bird, the lammergeyer of the Alps. Long exposure to the light and dust had rendered the whole valueless.
The geological and mineralogical collections have fared better, and are really very fine. The pure crystals of black quartz are of immense size, and those of clouded topaz are truly magnificent. One cannot doubt the correctness of their claim to be the finest in the world. Crowded into the small apartments of an irregular building, though well worth a noble hall, devoted exclusively to their exhibition and preservation, are some of the most interesting historical collections anywhere to be met with. Besides the relics of the ancient Lake-dwellers, which seem almost to unite the two departments of ethnology and geology, may be seen the remarkable trophies captured by the Swiss in their memorable war with the Burgundians, under Duke Charles the Bold, four centuries ago last summer (in 1476), including a rich altar-piece, and the tapestries and other costly trappings of his regal tent, which are among the most interesting relics to be found. The wealth of these collections is in painful contrast with the poverty of their surroundings.
Though a little out of the order of our visit, we will now turn to Geneva, where, in the Natural History Museum, we find everything in agreeable contrast with the shortcomings of the National Museum at Berne. The spacious and elegant building is comparatively new, is well arranged for light and the exhibition of specimens, and is pleasantly situated in the midst of a large, open park. Here may be studied the famous conchological collections that once belonged to the Duke of Massena, and which, to the student of this department of science, afford added interest as having been the types for Lamarck's great work. Here, too, is an immensely rich and very interesting collection of fossils, systematically arranged by the distinguished Pictet, and, among them, all the geological types of De Saussure. There is also an immense collection of coleopterous insects. The ornithological collection of this museum is not large, but exceptionally good. The specimens are all excellent, are well mounted, and present several commendable features, rare in Continental collections. The exact locality where each specimen was obtained is carefully recorded, and the local group of the birds of Switzerland forms an interesting and instructive feature. Another not common feature is an excellent, systematically-arranged collection of the eggs of birds. Though, comparatively speaking, not a large one, it is quite respectable even in point of numbers; and, in the care given to its preservation and in its arrangement, it is a model, and almost unique. This department is under the charge of M. Alois Humbert, an excellent ornithologist, whose explorations in Asia have contributed many specimens of great rarity, one of the most interesting being a veritable nest of one of the tailor-birds, so long the subject of unverified description.
In Stuttgart, the capital of Würtemberg, is a very large and valuable Museum of Natural History, that fills twenty spacious rooms in the Building of the Archives. To geologists, and to students of zoölogy and comparative anatomy, its collections in these departments are replete with interest. The collection of birds is very rich in rare African types, but, in the absence of Prof. Krauss, the director, these could not be inspected to advantage. The museum has no collection of eggs, but there is in the little kingdom of Würtemberg probably the largest oölogical collection in the world; the richest in its number of species, and excelling in the rarity and beauty of specimens, and in the extent and fullness of series, exhibiting variations in eggs of the same species. It belongs to Baron von Warthausen, and is preserved in his castle near Biberach. Unfortunately, I cannot speak of it from my own observation, as I had gone far beyond it before my invitation to visit and examine it overtook me in Dresden. It is, however, well known to be of great and constantly-increasing value, containing one-sixth of all the known species. It is especially rich in African and South American kinds, collected, at great expense, by expeditions sent out by the baron at his sole charge.
In Dresden, world-renowned for its galleries of art, and for museums illustrative of kindred departments, one would naturally look for a correspondingly rich Natural History Museum, Still, small and disappointing as the Dresden Museum of Natural History is, it contains the typical collections in oölogy of the late Dr. Thienemann, and therefore cannot be passed by in total silence. This museum has been recently placed under the charge of Dr. Adolf B. Meyer, a distinguished ornithological explorer in New Zealand, and his accession has already been followed by reconstructions full of promise. The Thienemann oölogical collection is an immense one, has been gathered from all parts of the world, and contains all the types of his illustrated work on oölogy. Unfortunately, in the latter part of his life he suffered his vast collection to lapse into great disorder. He ceased to continue a systematic arrangement; successive additions were but partially unpacked, and the identifications of many forever lost, or rendered doubtful. After Dr. Thienemann's death his family presented his collection, in this chaotic condition, to the Royal Museum, and time has but added to the confusion. Labels have been misplaced, and the best of experts cannot always restore them with certainty. Nevertheless there are still materials for creating by far the largest and richest public oölogical collection in Europe. It abounds in very rare and choice kinds; among others, no less than seven eggs of the ivory gull—an egg so rare that only two others are known to be in any museums, one in Dublin and one in Copenhagen.
The extensive museum of Berlin, owing to the inclemency of the weather and the rooms not being heated, could only be partially and hastily examined. The general plan of arrangement was simple and good, and the specimens appeared to be in excellent condition. It possesses a small but valuable and well-arranged collection of eggs, in which the great point of interest is a series of nests and eggs from Siberia, collected by a man of science exiled to that desolate region; many of these are very rare and unknown to other collections. The mineralogical collection is one of the most extensive on the Continent, and is especially rich in meteorolites. Its great interest centres in the collections brought by Humboldt from Central and South America. Dr. William Peters, a distinguished naturalist, is at the head of this museum, and the ornithology is under the charge of the venerable John Cabanis, who ranks high in his department, and is well known as the editor of the Journal of Ornithology.
The Imperial Cabinet of Natural History of Vienna deserves fuller mention than our space permits. Its vast collections would require almost a lifetime to examine exhaustively, and no single volume could do justice to all their various points of interest. Indeed, a good-sized and condensed volume has been devoted to its collections of birds only and from Brazil alone; and when it is remembered that this collection possesses specimens of 1,200 species exclusively from that region, besides all the collections of the Novara Expedition, and that these are but a portion of the immense whole, some idea may be formed of its magnitude. The museum is also rich in its collections of nests and eggs. Many of these are uniques, and were procured by the Novara and other exploring expeditions. These will remain for the present unarranged, awaiting their transfer to new quarters in an immense building which the Government is now constructing, and which in size and position promises to be one capable of doing ample to this noble collection. In charge of the ornithology is Dr. A. von Pelzeln, a naturalist of high repute, and a most courteous and obliging gentleman. At the time of our visit, the fishes and reptiles were in charge of Curator Dr. Franz Steindachner, a pupil of Prof. Agassiz, and for a while his assistant in the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Cambridge. He has more recently been promoted to the post of director-in-chief, a position for which he is most admirably qualified.
The natural history museums of Southern Italy, from Naples to Florence, are almost exclusively devoted to human and comparative anatomy. In the lovely City of Flowers we find, in her Royal Museum of Physical and Natural Science, an institution under the royal patronage, and unique in its character. It is a university for teaching natural history and the physical sciences. Here in the home of Galileo, and where his memory is deservedly held in high honor, astronomy receives its full share of attention. Dr. Parlatore, an excellent botanist and an eloquent lecturer, instructs in botany; and the director of the museum is Dr. Henry H. Giglioli, well known to scientific men as the naturalist of the Magenta Exploring Expedition. This institution is fortunate in having at its head so accomplished a gentleman and so enthusiastic a naturalist, and under his judicious efforts to advance its interests it bids fair to become in all its departments well worthy of the Tuscan capital. Its anatomical collections are already deserving of the highest commendation.
In the little city of Pisa, so attractive to strangers for its architectural peculiarities, is a museum well worthy of attention. To the student of ornithology it is interesting as the home of Suvi, the pioneer ornithologist of Italy. Here is a local collection of birds made by him of exemplary merit. The specimens are arranged in family groups, in small, air-tight glass cases, in each of which is presented a single species in all its varied forms, as modified by age, sex, or season. This includes the nest and eggs, the young chick, the summer and the winter plumage, and all the variations of the sexes—at once a novel, instructive, and interesting feature.
In Genoa the Civic Museum, under the patronage and general direction of the Marchese Giacomo Doria, is a model institution, in view of the general excellence of the plan on which it is conducted. Placed on a high position, commanding a magnificent view over a most lovely landscape, surrounded by beautiful grounds, it is a jewel well worthy of such exquisite setting. The building is large and convenient, the collection one of recent date and well arranged. Its most noteworthy feature is that nearly or quite all the specimens have been obtained by Italian explorers, and all have been precisely determined as to their original locality. The museum possesses very many special rarities, in some instances the only known perfect specimens in existence, as a new and undescribed specimen of a cassowary from the Arroo Islands. Its publications are eminently first class, creditable alike to the liberality of the patrons and the scientific merits of the members of this institution. The director of this museum is a young nobleman of scientific tastes and acquirements, using an ample fortune with liberality and good judgment. He is a direct lineal descendant of the historic Doge of Genoa, a first-cousin to the late Prince Pamphili Doria, of Rome, and a near kinsman of another great benefactor of Genoa, the Duke of Galliera, who signalized the last year of a useful life by the gift of 30,000,000 francs to improve the harbor of Genoa.
Milan is rich in museums and collections of various kinds, both public and private. Its Museo Civico, largely devoted to collections of natural history, and under the direction of Dr. Cornalia, is especially rich in its collection of reptiles, claimed to be the finest in Europe—in that of paleontology, and in its collection of skulls. Its director is a gentleman of high scientific attainment, and has largely contributed to the growth and development of the institution over which he has presided so many years. But to an ornithologist the great attraction of Milan is the unequaled private collection of Count Hercules Turati. His cabinet of mounted birds is the finest, as it is also one of the largest, in the world, and, though there may be several public collections both in America and in Europe that outnumber his in species, there is probably not one that approaches it in the uniform excellence, beauty, and perfection of plumage. There are superb specimens of every known species of the birds-of-paradise, very rare and very costly, and all in exquisite plumage. No expense is spared in procuring additions to this collection. Liberality, courtesy, and devotion to science, confirm this gentleman of rank as one of Nature's true noblemen, and unite with him to render his collection a great attraction to the ornithologists of all Europe.
The Museum of Natural History of Turin was commenced under the patronage of the royal house of Savoy, and is still aided by the Italian Government. But just at present Italy is called upon to expend so much upon her armies and her navies, her railroads and her public schools, that she has but little money to devote even to the favorite museum of her king. Nevertheless, this museum contains much that is worthy of consideration. The construction of the national railroads of Piedmont enriched its paleontological department with many unique and wonderful relics of the dark ages of geology; and, above all, in its director, Count Tommaso Salvadori, the Museum of Turin possesses one who is conceded to be, par excellence, the ornithologist of Italy, and who enjoys a world-wide reputation as among the first in this department of science. The collection of birds is, of course, well arranged and especially interesting in types. At the time of our visit, Salvadori's private room was literally strewed with many hundred specimens of birds-of-paradise, representing all but two or three species of this family, with series by the hundred of several species. These had been recently collected by two Italian travelers, one set belonging to the Italian Government, the other to the Civic Museum of Genoa, and referred to Salvadori for examination, and to aid him in his monograph of this family.
The Garden of Plants, in Paris, is an institution too generally familiar to require more than a passing mention. The new houses for the protection of the living animals are models in their contrivance, more especially the one for the reptiles and batrachians. The Ornithological Museum, though not of itself very extensive, is particularly interesting to scientific students as the depository of collections made by the several national exploring expeditious of France. Among these are many unique and typical specimens, not known to exist elsewhere in museums. The collection of eggs is also wonderfully interesting, is very large and well preserved, and contains not only many very rare kinds, but is especially noteworthy as possessing a large number of species not to be found in any other public collection, some of them laid by birds in confinement.
Leyden, in Holland, could not be passed by without at least a brief visit to the venerable Dr. Schlegel, and the far-famed museum under his charge. The time was, and that not immemorial, when this museum contained the largest collection of birds in the world. Even now it is surpassed by very few, and is still superior to all others in its representations of East Indian species. Its strongest point is its collection of monkeys, to which class of animals Dr. Schlegel has given great attention, and of this our ancestral family—according to Darwin—it possesses the surprising number of 1,500 different species. Dr. Schlegel, though of mature years, is still in vigorous health, a most charming old man, bright, cheerful, and affable, possessing an inexhaustible fund of conversation and knowledge, enriched by the careful observation of a long and well-spent life. His museum possesses a very rich collection of the eggs of the birds of Java and other East Indian possessions of the Dutch.
Of the British Museum, as a whole, it would be impossible to speak from competent knowledge, except with much more time than we could give to so endless a task. The writer will say that all he did or could see was very disappointing. Its collection of mounted birds, though containing much that was typical, rare, and interesting, was in the individual defects of a large proportion of its specimens in painful contrast to the private one of the Milanese banker. The collections of eggs were not arranged, and had not been procured with any special care. They seemed to have been all accumulated by chance donations, and required an immediate and very careful revision. It is, however, but justice to say that, since the zoölogical portion of the museum has been under the charge of Mr. Sharpe, a systematic rearrangement has been begun, and, so far as it has proceeded, is a great improvement. When the natural history portion of the museum is removed to Kensington, and rearranged in the new building in the course of construction, it is to be hoped that the managers of this institution will avail themselves of their great opportunities, now so strangely neglected, and render this branch of the British Museum better worthy of being the one national museum of a great empire. The contrast between the Museum of London and that of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, or that of Liverpool, cannot but be painful to the national pride of a true English naturalist.
For popular attractions, for general excellence of arrangement, and expedients for the instruction and education of the people in natural history, the Derby Museum, or, as it is now called, the Free Public Museum of Liverpool, far surpasses anything of its kind. It was founded by an ancestor of the present Lord Derby, and is under the admirable direction of Mr. Thomas J. Moore; but it would extend this paper too far to point out the excellence of its various devices for popular instruction. Here you can see the external form of bird or animal, and next to it its own skeleton, so that the bony frame and the outward appearance may be studied at the same moment. In one compartment are a full-grown lion and lioness, and with them young lions of various ages, from the tender nursling to the nearly full-grown whelp. In another compartment is well represented water in which appear disporting various forms of swimming-birds, old and young, demonstrating to the observer their position, when swimming, both above and below the surface. The collections are large and varied, and so arranged as to attract and educate the visitors.
In conclusion, only brief mention can be made of a few of the private collections of natural history in which England abounds. In his private apartments in Hanover Square, London, Prof. Osbert Salvin, of Cambridge University, stores his rich collections of birds, and eggs, and insects, gathered by himself in Central America. They are especially abounding in specimens from Guatemala, are admirably arranged, and well worthy of careful study. Howard Saunders, Esq., who makes the families of gulls and terns his especial study, possesses collections that are indescribably interesting. They consist of the birds (with their eggs) of Europe, together with exotic representatives of the two lies in which he is chiefly interested. He has been an active explorer in Spain, and the collections made there by himself are the chief attractions of his cabinet. Henry E. Dresser, Esq., a London merchant, and author of a magnificent work on the birds of Europe, now in course of publication, possesses, at his residence on South Norwood Hill, the most complete collection of the eggs of the birds of Europe probably in existence. It is admirably arranged, containing many fine suites of the least common kinds, and very many species not in any other collection.
The collections in oölogy, made by the late Mr. John Wolley, the indefatigable explorer of the ornithology of the arctic regions of Europe, were bequeathed to Prof. Alfred Newton, of Cambridge, who has illustrated them in a publication of great elegance. This collection is of great scientific as well as pecuniary value. Its series of specimens of some of the rarest arctic eggs are immense. The market money-value of one of these series—that of the waxwing—at its lowest computation, is not less than £100.
Within the close of the venerable Cathedral of Durham, the writer was privileged to examine, in the cabinet of Rev. Canon Tristram, the largest collection of eggs it was his good fortune to see in Europe. This gentleman is an excellent ornithologist, has been a great traveler and explorer in America, North Africa, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere, and his collections, which number over 1,700 species, have been largely taken by his own hand.
And here our space compels us to close our narrative, leaving much that was to us exceedingly attractive unsaid and undescribed. Though disappointing in certain instances, our study of European collections, as a whole, incomplete as it too often was, and all too hurried as to the time allotted, was ever full of instruction, interest, and enjoyment.