“Little More Room Than a Drawing”: Flattening Animals and Reconstructing Craft Practice in the British Atlantic, 1740–1820

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Whitney Barlow Robles, Harvard University
This paper explores flatness as a method of specimen preservation, a mode of seeing, and a way of animal being in eighteenth-century natural history. Focusing primarily on the British Atlantic, I examine how and why naturalists dried and then flattened certain organisms—especially fishes, but also corals, snakes, and insects—in order to understand them. I focus on several collections of fish specimens that were slit in half, dried, and then pressed and sewn to paper like plants. These specimens literalized the widespread period metaphor of the “book” or “page” of nature, serving as objects of natural theology as well as scientific paperwork. While naturalists would use this technique to standardize nature and render watery worlds (and extensive empires) visible, the habits and material form of fishes could encourage such preservation or confound it. Thus, the physical book of nature put pressure on the capacity of that very metaphor, as animals actively shaped what humans could learn about their objects of study.

In this paper, I also draw from food history and material culture studies to consider how craft knowledge—such as familiarity with cooking fishes—informed natural history practice, and I trace struggles between scientists who wanted to preserve their animal specimens and other human and insect actors who wanted to eat them. In so doing, I examine the various forms of labor that produced scientific knowledge and objects, including the fishing expertise of slaves and women’s experience preparing food. Finally, I recount my own attempts to make a flattened fish specimen in this tradition using some instructions from the 1740s and a European seabass from the grocery store, considering how we can understand historical craft practices by reconstructing specimen preservation techniques and conducting our own embodied investigations of animals.

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