Skip to main content

Images of Nature

Please note that due to a cyber attack, some of our employees can currently only be reached by telephone.

Eine geöffnete Archivbox mit historischen Fotografien

Images of Nature – Object Histories from the Historical Image and Document Collections of the Historical Division

Julia Bärnighausen and Sophia Gräfe

The origins of the Historical Image and Document Collections of the Historical Division stem from the administrative files of the natural history collections of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin (today Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), which was founded in 1810. Initially, these files mainly comprised bureaucratic documents, correspondence, and collection catalogues. In addition, individual collection departments kept their own research documents, often including images, giving rise to a decentralized network of files. In the 1920s, Walther Arndt (1891–1944), custodian at the Zoological Museum, and later Erwin Stresemann (1889–1972) began to sort and register historical images and written materials. This work was systematized by the historian of biology Ilse Jahn (1922–2010) from the late 1960s onwards. In 1988, the Historical Image and Document Collections attained a central departmental status within the museum and their shelves continue to grow to this day. So far, the process of cataloguing these collections has been guided primarily by individual research relating to the museum and its international networks. A comprehensive history of the Historical Division has not yet been written.

In the summer term of 2020, an interdisciplinary group of students explored the Historical Division, focusing on visual media. The so-called image collections (Bildsammlungen) were at the heart of the research project. Beginning in the 1980s under the direction of art historian Sabine Hackethal these collections have been consolidated and organised; according to current estimates, they consist of more than 30,000 images. However, visual media can be found in other parts of the Historical Division too: scientific drawings, illustrations, watercolour and oil paintings, printed works such as copperplate engravings and lithographs, photographs, glass negatives and slides, as well as films and educational wall charts. The portrait collection, established in the nineteenth century, forms a particularly important section of the collections. In addition, objects such as small sculptures, models, and seals are part of the Historical Division. All these media shape our historical and current understanding of nature.  

The contributions in the series "Images of Nature" provide a glimpse into the visual realm of the Historical Division. They were written by students from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and researchers from the Historical Division of the Museum für Naturkunde in the style of object biographies. Informed by material culture studies of the 1980s, the concept of object biography has since been fruitfully adapted to visual media. In this sense, images are not flat representations but "three-dimensional" objects (Edwards) with front and back sides as well as numerous traces of use. Each image has its own 'biography', which continues in the archive beyond its original purpose. We invite you to explore these images in their historical, archival, and digital contexts.

The project "Images of Nature" emerged from a university course of the bologna.lab study program "Vielfalt der Wissensformen" and was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the framework of the Qualitätspakt-Lehre. It included students of art history and history, cultural studies as well as library and information science. We would like to thank Sandra Miehlbradt, Yvonne Reimers, and Sabine Hackethal from the Historical Division for their support, Carola Radke and Hwa Ja Götz for the photographs, and Anne MacKinney for editing the translations. 

Image above: "Mammalia", an uncatalogued photo box in the archive, MfN, HBSB, Depictions of Animals – Mammals, © Carola Radke, MfN.

Images of Nature 2020/01 – On the Hunt for a "Fox with two Tails" Marna Schneider 
Images of Nature 2020/02 – Documenting a Butterfly Yvonne Reimers
Images of Nature 2020/03 – From Chain to Circle Anne MacKinney
Images of Nature 2020/04 – Photographs as Bycatch Anastasiia Iarkaeva
Images of Nature 2020/05 – The Forgotten Grass Fire Paula Zwolenski
Images of Nature 2020/06 – Archival Testimonies: Markus Mailopu Sandra Miehlbradt 

Bibliography

  • Renate Angermann: "Anna Held, Paul Matschie und die Säugetiere des Berliner Zoologischen Museums", in: Bongo, vol. 24, Berlin 1994, pp. 107–138. 
  • Julia Bärnighausen et al. (eds.): Foto-Objekte. Forschen in archäologischen, ethnologischen und kunsthistorischen Sammlungen, Bielefeld 2020.
  • Katrin Böhme and Sabine Hackethal: "Kurzmitteilung. Das 'THEATRUM NATURAE' von 1615: der Weg einer Bildersammlung", in: Zoosystematics and Evolution, vol. 76 (2000), no. 1, pp. 155–156.
  • Peter Braun (ed.): Objektbiographie: Ein Arbeitsbuch, Weimar 2015.
  • Costanza Caraffa: "'Wenden!': Fotografien in Archiven im Zeitalter ihrer Digitalisierbarkeit: ein material turn", in: Rundbrief Fotografie, vol. 18 (2011), no. 3, pp. 8–15.
  • Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (eds.): Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, New York 2004.
  • Sabine Hackethal: "Die Historischen Schrift- und Bildgutsammlungen im Museum für Naturkunde und ihre Bedeutung für Sammlungsarbeit und Forschung", in: Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, vol. 38 (1989), no. 4, pp. 353–358.
  • Ibid.: "Die Portraitsammlung des Berliner Zoologischen Museums als Bestandteil der Historischen Schrift- und Bildgutsammlungen des Museums für Naturkunde Berlin", in: Neue Museumskunde, vol. 32 (1989), no. 4, pp. 255–261.
  • Anita Hermannstädter, Ina Heumann and Kerstin Pannhorst (eds.): Wissensdinge. Geschichten aus dem Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Berlin 2015 and 2nd rev. ed., Berlin 2020.
  • Hannelore Landsberg: "'Die Wissenschaft wird streng und nüchtern richten ...' (Carl Chun 1900) 100 Jahre Deutsche Tiefsee-Expedition Valdivia", in: Verhandlungen zur Geschichte und Theorie der Meeresbiologie, ed. by. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie, vol. 5, Berlin 2000, pp. 75–90.
  • Yvonne Reimers: Bewertung und Übernahme im Museumsarchiv am Beispiel der Historischen Bild- und Schriftgutsammlungen des Museums für Naturkunde Berlin, unpublished research paper, Fachhochschule Potsdam, Potsdam 2020.
  • Mareike Vennen: "Arbeitsbilder – Bilderarbeit. Die Herstellung und Zirkulation von Fotografien der Tendaguru-Expedition", in: Dinosaurierfragmente. Zur Geschichte der Tendaguru-Expedition und ihrer Objekte 1906–2018, ed. by Ina Heumann et al., Göttingen 2018, pp. 56–75.