What can making now tell us about the past? Or should the past remain untouched?
by Whitney Barlow Robles via Common-Place on January 1, 2018
The dried skin of a fish hangs over my head as I type. It has been there for nearly two years, and no longer smells as it did for weeks after I slit the animal in half (fig. 1). This sea bass from the grocery store, now a specimen, was my attempt to understand a widespread but little-remembered practice in eighteenth-century science that might seem strange to us today: to dry, bisect, and flatten animals like fish, and then glue or stitch them on paper or slip them in books like pressed flowers.
In the 1740s, a Dutch botanist named John Frederick Gronovius published a set of fish flattening instructions in the Philosophical Transactions of London’s premier scientific collective, the Royal Society. Many more naturalists would publish variant recipes. According to Gronovius, one would cut the animal in half from head to tail with “Scissars,” remove its innards and flesh, keep the tail and fins expanded with pins while the fish dried in the sun or near a fire, and press the skin for a full twenty-four hours. When American naturalist John Bartram opened a package with one such sample, he matter-of-factly told Gronovius, “I have received . . . the skin of the Fish, with its fins curiously displayed on paper; all which was very acceptable.” Naturalists from America, England, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere would exchange hundreds—more likely thousands—of similar specimens across the world in that century.
Resembling drawings or engravings more than live animals, these objects gave naturalists a literal demonstration of their favorite metaphor: that science was an act of reading the “book” or “page” of nature, written by God, the ultimate author. The half-skins also served more practical ends by facilitating colonial expansion and the creation of universal taxonomies, or systems for arranging nature. One could ship paper fish around the world in essentially picture form, stacked in a box where they took up “very little more room than a Drawing,” and looked “infinitely better,” in the words of London-based collector George Humphrey. Each fish became fused with metadata and annotations written on its paper background or on the skin itself. As a form of early modern information management, this fish paperwork made the animals of the far reaches of an empire visible and readily accessible to those seeking to exploit them. Flattened fish were not merely objects to be shipped efficiently: they were surfaces for storing knowledge.