Amy McKenzie and Anna Welch highlight some natural history wonders now showing in The Mirror of the World exhibition: the pun in the headline is theirs……
Currently on display in Mirror of the World are two key works by the natural historian Richard Owen (1804-1892). Owen is probably most famous for coining the term Dinosauria (Greek for ‘terrible lizard’) to describe the fossils of giant reptiles that were rapidly being discovered in the 19th century. But in his lifetime he also became known as the ‘father of Australian palaeontology’ due to the role he played in studying and classifying Australian fossils, in addition to extinct animals from other parts of the British Empire. Owen published many works on the subject of Australian natural history. The State Library holds a number of these, including Researches on the fossil remains of the extinct mammals of Australia (1877) and Memoirs on the extinct wingless birds of New Zealand: with an appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez (1879).
In spite of his prolific work on giant marsupial quadrupeds such as Diprotodon , none of these Australian animals achieved the iconic status of the New Zealand moa (Diornis maximus), a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand. These birds grew up to 3.6 metres tall and were a significant source of food for early Maori. Their skin, bones and feathers were used for clothing and tools. Their usefulness led to a rapid demise – moa were hunted to extinction before the arrival of Europeans. The birds were known only in mythology until Owen classified a fragment of moa bone in 1840. He went on to name 13 separate species of moa.
Owen was appointed superintendent of natural history at the British Museum, and in this role he was responsible for the creation of the National Museum of Natural History. The 19th century saw huge growth in the study of natural history, and this was partly driven by the imperial propaganda machine. The Dutch and French empires founded prestigious museums of natural history, employing naturalist-collectors to travel to the far flung reaches of their empires and collect natural history specimens. The British Empire was just as eager to showcase the diverse riches of its colonies. Robert Huxley’s The Great Naturalists provides more detail on some of the fossil hunters, botanists and collectors who were part of this movement.
An expert in comparative anatomy, thanks to his experience with fossils and background as a surgeon, Owen famously engaged in quarrels with other naturalists of the day, including the palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, whose moa specimens Owen disparaged. Mantell in turn decried Owen’s ‘atrocious falsehoods’ and ‘lamentable turpitude’.
Due to his clashes with Charles Darwin, Owen has gone down in history as a notorious denier of evolution. Owen believed that many adaptations, such as the attenuated middle finger of the aye-aye, could not be explained by natural selection, but were instead guided by a predetermined divine plan. Later in life, Owen’s views evolved and he became more accepting of natural selection. Nicolaas A. Rupke suggests in his biography that Owen’s changing views were influenced by his studies of animals and birds in Australia and New Zealand. His findings led him to conclude that geographic isolation had led to unique life forms evolving in these places.
You can visit this display about Richard Owen until October 2015.
A picture of our Redmond Barry Reading Room, in a previous existence as part of the National Museum of Victoria