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Images of Nature

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, October 2020

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, Vol. 1, 10/2020

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 

New: Images of Nature, Vol. 2, 03/2024, Sophia Gräfe and Julia Bärnighausen (German)

Bilder der Natur 2024/01 – Ist ein Tier ein Dokument? Fiona Möhrle
Bilder der Natur 2024/02 – Nach dem Leben gezeichnet Polina Kiourtidis & Hanna Wüste
Bilder der Natur 2024/03 – Fotografische Rekonstruktionen Enea Conte
Bilder der Natur 2024/04 – Reisende Bilder Sarina Schirmer & Katharina Ziegler
Bilder der Natur 2024/05 – Leerstellen im Archiv Alona Dubova
Bilder der Natur 2024/06 – Komplexe Zeichen Luisa Marten
Bilder der Natur 2024/07 – Unerkannt. Koloniale Fotografien Paula Zwolenski



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