By Mark Carnall, Collections Manager
In addition to the many thousands of biological specimens that can be found at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we also possess a variety of objects that originate from historical versions of the Museum’s displays. These include models, casts, and illustrations of various kinds, used to represent organisms that were otherwise difficult to preserve and display.
That any of these exhibition materials survive at all is down to pure happenstance and luck. At the time when they were removed from display, these artefacts would have just been seen as outdated ‘display furniture’ and all but destined to have been thrown away. One surviving piece of ex-display material, which catches my eye almost daily as it sits in my office, is a rather large pair of illustrations showing a South American and a West African lungfish mounted on a black backing board.
By pure coincidence, I recently came across lithograph reproductions of these illustrations in an 1895 publication by E. Ray Lankester. Had these fish not have been my office-mates, I might not have paid the lithographs in the paper much attention, nor recognised their significance.
E. Ray Lankester was a noted Zoologist who studied at Oxford University and was the holder of the Linacre Chair. He was also heavily involved in adding to the collections and displays here at OUMNH. His 1895 paper – a smash hit I’m sure we all remember – was titled On the Lepidosiren of Paraguay, and on the external characters of Lepidosiren and Protopterus, and sought to add more reliable evidence on the appearances of lungfishes.
Lungfishes were of particular interest to scientists at the end of the nineteenth century. Though seemingly related, the different species of lungfish caused no small amount of head-scratching, given that they were found in freshwater ecosystems as far apart as Australia, Africa, and South America. As their name suggests, they are fish but also air-breathing, and the fact that they possess lungs also marked them for scientific interest at the time.
Interestingly (well, interesting to me!) is that Lankester adds an extensive note in the paper about the illustration of the specimens, explaining that he is unhappy with how Bayzand’s original drawings have been modified in the process of transforming them into lithographs for publication. According to Lankester, these modifications introduced inaccuracies. In particular, he complained that the lithographer had made it look like the lungfishes were covered in scales, and stresses that “[a]s a matter of fact, no scales at all[,] or parts of scales[,] are visible on the surface” of the lungfish. Instead, he makes clear that in real life (or, in this case, in preserved life) the scales of the fish are overlaid with soft tissue. Comparing the figure in the paper with the illustrations in my office confirms that the lithographer had, indeed, inaccurately reproduced the original drawings.
The happy coincidence of me finding Lankester’s paper led me to several important revelations. Firstly, we now know that Bayzand’s original drawings of the lungfish can still be found here at OUMNH. Secondly, we can surmise that, at some point in the past, these drawings were displayed in the Museum’s galleries. We can also corroborate that the original illustrations are different to the published versions, meaning that, if we are to believe Lancaster, they are also more accurate than those in the publication. Finally, we now know that two of the Museum’s specimens were cited with extra biographical information in Lankester’s paper.
Sadly, these exciting findings mean that my office mates will probably have to be relocated and take up residence in the Museum’s archives alongside their subject matter…