What is ‘natural history’?

After a year spent wandering North West England, working on natural history collections, one question that comes up is “What do you mean by ‘natural history’?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. The obvious answer, the one most people think of, is a definition that includes any preserved specimen of a once-living creature. So zoology, entomology, conchology, botany etc. However, that excludes geology, which in my opinion also belongs. So we now move to a definition that encompasses any “natural” product of the Earth: anything that isn’t ‘man-made’ basically.

But what about representations of the natural world? A copy of Audubon’s Birds of America just sold for £7.3m. Isn’t a book like this also ‘natural history’? What about conventional natural history specimens that have been altered by man, let’s say an egg with an image carved or painted onto it. Are they ‘natural history’ or ‘man-made’?

So, here is a specimen. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. But I’d like you to tell me: Is it a natural history specimen, or not?





Filed under Meanings, Museums

15 responses to “What is ‘natural history’?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What is ‘natural history’? | New Light on Old Bones -- Topsy.com

  2. My gut response to your question about the object you show is that it isn’t natural history. But it is very hard to draw the distinction, especially when all natural history objects (at least those found in museums) must have been manipulated by people at some point, even if only in terms of being selected and moved to the museum.

    I then began to think about a way of defining our interactions with nature that I think comes from Stephen Kellert. We can engage with nature directly, indirectly or vicariously. According to this definition, direct interactions must be in places where nature is existing (pretty much) uncontrolled by people. Indirect interactions can be anywhere from a zoo to a garden to a museum – places where we can interact physically with aspects of nature, but nature itself is managed by people. And the vicarious interactions are those that happen at a distance – through film, photography, art and culture.

    I’m a big fan of sliding scales, or even three dimensional maps of these ideas, so I don’t really see these definitions in terms of boxes, but rather by degrees. And as well as defining by directness, I think it is also interesting to define by meaning and intent. So, while taxidermy may be somewhere between an indirect and a vicarious sort of natural history, Walter Potter’s kitten school is less useful as a representation of nature than a piece based on knowledge of the animal’s behaviour in it’s habitat.

    Your object you include above is would clearly fall into the category of vicarious nature (or be near that end of the scale). To me it looks like a carving of a cockerel made from ivory (although I could be wrong on both of these). It is a human-made representation, and the material has been adapted so that it is no longer it’s ‘natural’ shape. But for all I know, it could be part of a sculptural encyclopedia intended to teach about the natural world, in which case, its purpose would be no less natural history than a botanical drawing.

    I’ve gone on enough! Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking blog!

  3. Hi- an interesting question- ‘natural history’ conjures up images of Gilbert White and those of a like mind, investigating nature in the field. ‘Natural science’ sounds so much more serious- so much more ‘professional’- whereas natural history sounds distinctly ‘amateur’- although it’s worth thinking about the original meaning of ‘amateur’- one who LOVES a subject.

    The terms just aren’t particularly useful nor relevant to the prevailing wide spectrum of interests- if you look around at people’s interests- recycling, allotments, green travel, feeding birds in the garden, looking at clouds, watching the stars and moon- neither term accommodates these.

    What ‘the subject’ is called is important though- as it is the entry point for many people. I used to be called ‘Head of Natural Sciences’, then ‘Head of Natural Environments’. Neither term is especially user friendly, nor conveys the deep emotional interest i nthe subject that curators share with interested members of the public.

    Maybe not particularly helpful comments, but a rebranding of ‘natural history’ might be so helpful in engaging museums with the general public.


    • David Craven

      Great point about the connection the term we use makes to the public. My title goes with “natural sciences”, but I always feel the public have a more instinctual grasp of “natural history” because of well-established relationships and familiarity to the output of the BBC Natural History Unit!

      But as you say, and part of what I was trying to get at, is that no one term seems to really do justice to the work of a museum “natural history curator”, to the passions involved. That disconnect with modern expressions of those passions is a significant problem, and working out how we make museum “natural history” more embedded with people’s current interests is a challenge museums need to embrace.

  4. I think of natural history as the descriptive arm of natural philosophy – detailing the observable without attempting to explain it. The natural sciences are the explanatory components of natural philosophy, encompassing physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, etc.

    The use of the term ‘natural’ is really only there to distinguish the materialistic and physical from the metaphysical, ethereal and theological branches of philosophy.

    As such, the figured image can be encompassed within natural history quite happily if it was intended as a study of (what looks like) a fighting cock, but if it was intended to represent nothing more than an artist’s interpretation of a fighting cock, then it exits the realm of natural history and becomes conceptual art.

    As always, it’s all about context and the drawing of arbitrary lines of understanding. Interesting post – I suppose the follow-up should be ‘what is art?’…

    • David Craven

      I think the “what is art?” question is essentially the same side of the coin (which I think is the point you are making?).
      Either question, applied to the same object, leads ultimately into the same set of answers, and raises the same set of additional questions.

      • David Craven

        It woulkd actually be interesting to post an image of, say, the tiger/python mount on a popular art blog and ask the same question. “Is this art?”

      • Absolutely – the arbitrary nature of the way in which we classify the world means that there will often be considerable overlap between classifications and disciplines, sometimes making distinctions between categories unhelpful or even misleading.

  5. As I read your question, I was struck by the same question as PaoloV “what is art”? Because I do think it comes down to first principles: what is natural history?

    To me, the piece pictured could be considered natural history on a number of levels. It repesents a bird (albeit a domesticated creature) in its natural posture and (could be) made from ivory, which is a natural product. Given, that “both yes and no” is an acceptable answer (harkening back to Elki’s sliding scale) , I feel that it’s not the artist’s intention that’s important, but what we want to do with it. If, for example we wanted to create an assmeblage of objects depciting birds, or of things made from ivory, demonstrating the decline of elephants, then it could very naturally fit into natural history. If, however, if it’s simply examples from the collection of a particular collector, then it’s art – at that place and time.

    • David Craven

      Another excellent point. Is any one meaning more valid than another?
      Does the intention of the artist surpass the intention of the viewer? Or are the meanings we choose to apply more important?
      These are questions that are routinely asked about art collections, but not natural history questions.

      • David Craven


        “These are questions that are routinely asked about art collections, but not natural history collections.”

  6. Patricia Francis

    Isn’t the base a natural history specimen too (looks like timber)?

    • David Craven

      I’m glad someone brought the base into it! I’ve been meaning to check exactly what it’s made from (the specimen is in Blackburn Museum by the way).

  7. Helen

    Is the object a natural history specimen?
    Yes, presuming it is made of wood which I think it is. In collection terms it is an example of that species of wood, available for comparison with other species of wood, and potentially for analysis. I see no problem with having it in a wood collection especially if it is a rare type of wood. I am not quite sure what the chicken is made of, but there are many examples of carved ornamental stones that rest quite happily in geological collections as they are examples of that rock type. They do of course have an overlap with other collections such as art (e.g. think of jadeite carvings) but it is always possible to share !

  8. Looks like a plaster cast chicken to me. Its not natural history its a CHICKEN

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