The Making of Natural Histories: A Q&A with Tom Baione

by AMNH on


Most of us are deluged daily with hundreds of images on billboards and screens of all sizes. But natural history illustrations like those featured in the 2012 collection Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library still retain the power to surprise.

Natural Histories Rhino by Durer
This rhinoceros by German artist Albrecht Dürer was featured in Historia animalium (1551).  Compiled by a Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gessner, the five-volume encyclopedia is credited with the start of modern zoology and was the most widely read natural history book in Renaissance Europe. 

Featuring beguiling illustrations from scientific works published from the 1500s until the early 1900s, Natural Histories was edited by Tom Baione, the Museum Library’s director, and inspired the current exhibition of the same name.

In advance of his Wednesday evening lecture about Natural Histories, Baione recently talked with us about the Library’s Rare Book Collection, how he chose which 40 books to feature in Natural Histories, and which rare books he’s planning to bring to tomorrow’s lecture so the audience can see the art for themselves.

Tell us about the Library’s Rare Book Collection.

We have more than half of a million volumes in the main library, all of which we consider to be tools for scientists and scholars.

Folio editions in the rare book collection
In the Museum's Rare Book Colleciton, many books are oversized folios and are stored lying flat.

We sequester a subset of about 14,000 volumes in the rare book collection, which are accessible, but with more rigorous security protocols. Usually the books are there because they are rare, or scarce, or valuable, and often because the images within might be considered valuable—and people might want to tear them out!

How are the rare books stored?

We have some shelving for small books—those that are under 35 centimeters tall—the normal kind of bookshelf, with the spines upright. But the other, larger books, called folios, lie flat. 

There are illustrations from 40 books featured in Natural Histories. How did you choose which to include?

First, we wanted to choose images that were intriguing, that were not only attractive, but made you ask: What’s going on here? I have to know more.

I also decided that the books should cover the disciplines that scientists study here at the Museum. For instance, we have many beautiful illustrated botany books, but we don’t have a botany department, so we didn’t include that subject. The selected books also ensured representation from all the geographic regions on Earth, from Europe to the Americas to Antarctica to Australia.

Tasmanian Tiger Natural Histories
English ornithologist and taxidermist John Gould’s images and descriptions for the three-volume work The mammals of Australia (1863) remain an invaluable record of Australian animals that became increasingly rare with European settlement. The “Tasmanian tigers” pictured here were actually thylacines (Thylacinus cynocephalus), the world’s largest meat-eating marsupials until going extinct in 1936. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Which books will you be bringing along to the lecture for the audience to see?

We usually don’t bring books outside the library—but we’re going to do it Wednesday! I’m leaning toward the Conrad Gessner, from the 1550s. It’s a five-volume work called Historia animalium (Histories of the animals), with black-and-white woodcut illustrations, including many animals the illustrator had never seen in life.

Octopus engraving
From Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (1551−1558), this octopus engraving is a remarkably good likeness—except for the depiction of round, rather than slit-shaped, pupils—indicating the artist clearly did not draw from a live specimen.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Perhaps also the William Hamilton, a book from the 1770s featuring colored engravings of Mt. Vesuvius, in Italy, as it erupts.

In this image from Campi Phlegraei: observations on the volcanoes of the Two Sicilies (1776) by William Hamilton (1731−1803), Hamilton has escorted a group of dignitaries, including the king and queen of Naples, to view Vesuvius in full eruption, spewing lava and gases. The book’s illustrator, Pietro Fabris, can be seen sketching nearby (lower left).
© AMNH/D. Finnin

And the Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber, featuring large mammals from zebras to mandrills, which was published in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

This mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), with its delicate hands, cheerful expression, and almost upright posture, seems oddly human. While many images in Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber’s Mammals illustrated (1774−1846) were quite accurate, those of primates generally were not.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

In the end, we’ll bring a selection that showcases the beauty and diversity of the organisms and art works.

What’s next for showcasing the library’s collections? 

Last winter, the Museum published Extraordinary Birds, written and edited by [Ornithology Collections Manager] Paul Sweet, the second volume in the Natural Histories series with illustrations from our Rare Book Collection.

Extraordinary Birds: selections from the AMNH rare book collection

And next comes the third in this illustrated series about the Museum's rare books, tentatively titled Opulent Oceans, featuring essays by Curator Melanie Stiassny about marine animals, from sea stars to octopuses to sharks to sea snakes.