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Museums and microscopes

Posted by Stephen Johnston on November 3rd, 2007

A review of Lynn L. Merrill, The Romance of Victorian Natural History (Oxford, 1989), picks out the chapter on museums and microscopes as the most striking:

‘The cabinet, which Merrill classifies as a “small-scale museum”, and the microscope become metaphors for ways of looking at nature, since both make an exhibit out of nature. Both the objects in a museum and those under a microscope emphasize particularity, but this particularity also suggests panorama. The cabinet’s panorama consists in the meaning created by the juxtaposition of objects. Even the choice of specimens and their framing in a restricted area creates a new little world which reverberates with possibilities of the larger world. The microscope also presents a new world whose panorama is revealed within the world opened up by the lens. With the physical eye catered to by the microscope (this instrument became comparatively inexpensive by 1830), and the ever-increasing number of museums, no wonder the imaginative eye of Victorian writers became enamored with natural history.’

Martha Westwater, Modern Philology, 88 (1990), pp. 215-218

Microscopic Sea Shells – Part 2

Posted by Laura Ashby on September 2nd, 2007

On Foraminifera and Radiolaria (which are also microscopic sea shells):

‘The importance of both stems from the fact that radiolaria and planktonic foraminifera live at or near the ocean surface and their shells incorporate a record of surface-water conditions as they grow. But it is the calcareous sediments, formed by the rain of dead planktonic foraminifera through the abyss, that have traditionally formed the backbone of climatic and oceanographic research.’

Richard Corfield, The Silent Landscape: In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876, London: John Murray, 2004, p.135

Microscopic Sea Shells

Posted by Laura Ashby on August 16th, 2007

I’ve been writing my poem Feedback Loop, written from the point of view of a type of shelled plankton called the Foraminifera and I’ve discovered that the poet Sarah Maguire has written a poem about the Foraminifera too. I’m relieved to find that the two poems are so dissimilar. Hers is very lovely and can be found here:


and mine will be soon available on the main Small Worlds website.

The Laboratory and the Fairground

Posted by Laura Ashby on August 1st, 2007

I’ve just been very struck by this:“In Evenings at the Microscope he [Gosse] wrote: ‘like the work of some mighty genie of Oriental fable, the brazen tube is the key that unlocks a world of wonder and beauty before invisible, which one who has once gazed upon it can never forget’. This was the language of the laboratory leaning on the language of the fairground.”

Marina Benjamin, ‘Sliding Scales: Microphotography and the Victorian Obsession with the Minuscule’, in Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (eds), Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, London: Faber and Faber, 1997, pp. 99–122.


Philip Henry Gosse, ‘Evenings at the Microscope’ London: SPCK, 1877.

Small Kingdoms

Posted by Laura Ashby on July 31st, 2007

One of the themes of Small Worlds is that our usual (large) world isn’t the only one.

Colin Tudge says this:

“Indeed, whereas taxonomists once recognised just two kingdoms of eukaryotes (animals and plants) or three (animals, plants, and fungi), or four (animals, plants, fungi and ‘protoctists’), some modern biologists now acknowledge 20 kingdoms or more, and most of these are protists. Our own kingdom, the Animalia, has thus been dramatically demoted: from a conceptual 50 per cent of the whole to less than 5 per cent. Thus humans have been driven from the centre of the biological stage just as the astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo shifted planet Earth from the centre of the Universe.”

Colin Tudge, The Variety of Life, Oxford: OUP, 2000, p.128


Posted by Webmaster MHS on June 30th, 2007

Welcome to the Small Worlds commonplace book.

This is a kind of scrapbook in which the Small Worlds collaborators are going to share various quotes, images and links that we discover as we create the Small Worlds exhbition.

So, coming soon: more content!




May 2024