Collectors have always produced catalogues of their collections. These have taken a wide variety of forms, from the luxurious to the basic; they could be taxonomic check-lists of contents, or lavish and erudite works explaining the cosmology of the collection, representing it in an idealised form or virtually extending its contents beyond its physical reality with images, knowledge and references. They could function as sales catalogues, encyclopaedias linked to empirical experience or personal microcosms on paper, explaining the historia of each object.
I wanted to see what would happen if I made a catalogue of my collection. Each item is a metonym, a part standing in for the whole: the entire animal, the taxonomic group, the place, the experience, the self. This is the fundamental architecture of collections, and why they can be so powerful.
The second shelf
The overarching theme of this shelf is immediatey obvious: these objects are all marine specimens. But they are certainly not all from the same habitat, they span the ocean floor to the shoreline, the red-lit depths to the bright, sparkling space of the photic zone; anchored creatures to those that spend their lives traversing the open ocean.
Your eyes have probably been immediately drawn to the back, to the spongy and slightly suggestive looking shapes at the back. These are Venus flower baskets, deep-sea glass sponges or hexactinellid sponges, slow-growing creatures of the deep seas off East and South East Asia. They have a symbiotic relationship with a species of shrimp- a pair will live in the sponge and become trapped as they grow, feeding off organic material caught in the sponge, keeping it clean in return. When they spawn, their larvae can escape the glassy cage to go and find one of their own.
These sponges were prized as symbols of love and could fetch 500 quid in the 19th century. Now they cost about 15 pounds off Ebay. I purchased several of these myself, but was given the others as a present for running the Cabinet of Natural History seminar series in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge. They sat precariously at the back until I came up with a way of suspending them.
The row of large shells at the back are a particular obsession of mine: nautiluses and argonauts. Left to right: a pearlised nautilus, with the outer layer of shell removed, given to me by my parents; a paper nautilus or argonaut that broke when the dealer was sending it to me, so he kindly gave it to me for free; in front of this is a trio of small brown paper argonauts; then a half-nautilus showing the inner chambers; and a complete nautilus shell.
Though argonauts are called ‘paper nautiluses’, as a result of their wafer-thin shells, they are not actually very closely related. They are both cephlopods (encephalised or headed footed-things), but the argonaut is an octopus and the nautilus is not. Nautilus shells have gas chambers with which the animal can control its buoyancy, the argonaut shell is really an egg case secreted by females and does not curl to the mathematical ‘Golden Ratio’. They became the namesake of the seekers of the Golden Fleece because classical authorities described these animals as using their expanded arms as sails on the high seas.
Last year, the chambered nautilus was added to CITES Appendix II and are protected in some countries because of over-exploitation. They reproduce slowly, and plenty of people want to use them, so it is no surprise.
The ammonites, at the front, look very like these modern-day shells. There are also fossil nautiluses from the same geological period, but they can be told apart by the different positions of the air-valves between the chambers- in the nautilus they run through the centre, in the ammonites, around the rim of the coil. Ammonites were thought to be ‘snakestones’ in the medieval and early modern periods, sometimes a snake’s head was carved onto the end of the fossil.
To the left the striking spiky shell is a murex Venus comb shell, named for obvious reasons. One might almost imagine mermaids reclining on rocks in nauseating cliche combing their tresses (that would, realistically, be horribly tangled from seawater). Purchased on the trip to Tobago and Trinidad. I was distraught when one front-spike snapped off. Like the nautiluses, I would probably never buy such a thing now, knowing the damage such trade does. This is beside several coral specimens I have written about in another post. The platygyra I picked up on the beack in Tobago, the flat, mushroom-like fungia specimen is Guy’s, and the branched one at the front was given me by a mother of my sister’s school friend’s from a diving trip when I was 12.
The brown spiky object is a horseshoe crab shell that I acquired on holiday on the US East Coast with my family when I was about 13. We arrived on a beack after the crabs were spawning, hundreds of their helmeted, prehistoric bodies littered the beach in varying state of decay amongst the living animals persevering with their task. This small specimen must have been a male, and has lost the crab-like legs that belie the closer relationship with spiders than crustaceans.
Next to this horseshoe are two trilobites, a fantastically diverse and successful group around the same period the horseshoe crabs appeared, 450 million years ago. One accompanied the megalodon tooth from the top shelf as a present, the other a present from my long-time flatmate and friend. These creatures were incredibly ecologically varied, and had small crystalline eyes atop their carapaces, like the horseshoe crab. They all died out about 250 Mya, though, and we are not quite sure why.
The horseshoes remain, spawning every year on the beaches like an eruption of the long -gone past, before returning to the water. Their ancient copper-blue blood might be their undoing, however: it is milked to help us with medical testing, and the 1/4 of a million milked crabs returned to the water each year, for curtailed existences. The quick-action amebocytes they have for immunity detect contamination incredibly quickly in vaccines and equipment, saving many human lives at the potential cost of the species’ future.