Friday, 6 June 2014

Highlights from ‘The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures of The Harvard Museum of Natural History’

(Harvard Museum of Natural History: ‘HMNH’ (not to be confused with ‘NMNH’, London’s Museum of Natural History)

…21 million specimens …the Egg Room contains 30,000 glass topped boxes of bird’s eggs and nests… no one has ever counted the mollusc collection… the world’s largest ant collection…

The man who collected a rare butterfly in Papua New Guinea, was later eaten by cannibals.

The oldest correspondence dated 1777, is from a Boston dentist requesting two sea horse teeth (walrus ivory), to make dentures, though it was later stated that such dentures caused bad breath and made food taste disagreeable.

There are two stuffed pheasants in the collection, said to have been given to George Washington by Louis XVl.

The Mineral Collection was started by a Quaker doctor named Lottson, famous for bleeding his patients – and for the following rhyme:

‘When any sick to me apply I physics, bleeds and sweats em If, after that they choose to die Why, verily I Lettson.’

In 1846 John White Webster presided over the museum’s collections. He lived beyond his means and entertained lavishly. He was forced to borrow $2000 from a group of benefactors, including a wealthy physician named George Parkman, to purchase a complete mastodon skeleton.
He was already in debt to Mr Pakham so he put up his personal possessions, including his own mineral collection, as collateral. Webster then tried to sell the mineral collection to Parkman’s own brother-in-law. An outraged George Parkman visited John Webster to remonstrate and promptly disappeared. A week later, his false teeth and some skull and arm bones were found in Webster’s furnace, pelvis and leg bones in the cellar below the laboratory and more bones in Webster’s tea chest. The only positive identification that sent Webster to the gallows was from the dentures. The mastodon is still on display.

The moral of this tale is:
1.Mastodons are to kill for
2.Never lend a curator money.
3.Never,never ask for it back.

To be continued.....