Monday, June 16, 2014

State Library’s New Exhibition: Exploring the World Through Natural History

Aprosmictus splendens. (Peale.)
Opening today at the State Library of Massachusetts: a new exhibition featuring images from scientific exploring expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the exhibition’s main focus is on the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (also known as the “Wilkes Expedition,” or the “U.S. Ex.Ex.”), it also discusses more well-known expeditions such as the Michaux Expedition of 1793, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.

Actinia impatiens.
The United States Congress authorized funding for the Wilkes Expedition in 1836 with the expectation that the fleet of ships would circumnavigate the world to promote commerce and to offer protection to the heavy investment in the whaling and seal hunting industries, and to collect information on the flora, fauna, and peoples of countries relatively unknown to the federal government.  Under the command of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the Expedition’s personnel included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists and a philologist, and was carried by the sloops-of-war USS Vincennes and USS Peacock, the brig USS Porpoise, the full-rigged ship Relief, which served as a store-ship, and two schooners: the Sea Gull,  and the USS Flying Fish, which served as tenders.

The Wilkes Expedition strongly promoted the development of 19th-century science, particularly in the growth of the American scientific establishment. Many of the species and other items found by the expedition helped form the basis of collections at the new Smithsonian Institution.

Vespertilio semicaudatus.
Most of the images in the exhibition came from the atlas volumes of the exploring expedition’s resulting publication:  United States Exploring Expedition During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, a donation to the State Library from the United States Congress and available in the State Library’s Special Collections department. The exhibition also features facsimiles of several documents from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia: the subscription list from the proposed Michaux Expedition, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson and containing the pledge amounts and signatures of the first four presidents of the United States; and three manuscript journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Beth Carroll-Horrocks
Head of Special Collections