Collect, Preserve, Study

Any of us can collect and study natural things. Almost every child’s bedroom contains some scavenged natural treasures: rocks, crystals, fossils; bits of twig, seeds, berries and bugs.

Both professional scientists and amateur enthusiasts often start their studies by locating and gathering specimens out in the field. Nets, hammers, insect traps and collecting tins are among the essential tools for naturalists.

Once collected, specimens must be preserved to stop decay. Some are bottled in a preservative such as alcohol or formalin. Others are dried, skinned and mounted. Entomological pins hold dried insects in place, while plant material can be pressed and attached on special herbarium sheets. All must be kept in suitable conditions, well away from pests.

Blown larvae: one technique to preserve larvae is to blow air into the empty bodies and dry the skin until rigid.
This 'Monstrosities' drawer features specimens collected by John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893), each exhibiting some kind of deformity.

Drawing of a fossil fish (Dapedius punctatus), originally collected in the early 19th century by Elizabeth Philpot (1780–1857). This drawing was published by Louis Agassiz, who used Philpot's specimen to name the species in 1835.

Edward Lhuyd: Keeper of the Old Ashmolean
Welsh naturalist and botanist Edward Lhuyd (1660–1709) was the second Keeper of the 'Old' Ashmolean, succeeding its original Keeper Robert Plot in 1690. Lhuyd travelled across Britain and Ireland collecting and listing many botanical specimens and fossils, and his specimens are the earliest documented geological material to remain in Oxford University’s collection. With financial backing from his friend Isaac Newton, Lhuyd published Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia in 1669, a catalogue and field guide to fossils from around England.

William Burchell: Exploring Africa
In the early 19th century, British naturalist William Burchell (1781-1863) became one of the pioneering explorers of Southern Africa. Landing in Cape Town in 1810, Burchell began a journey of more than 4,500 miles on which he collected 63,000 specimens of plants, animals, rocks and minerals. Many of these specimens were type specimens, then new to science. Some of Burchell’s collections are held by the Museum of Natural History, including the hippopotamus tusk, tortoise, and elephant tooth shown in this picture, painted by Burchell.

Inside of my African Waggon by William Burchell