January 17, 2018

On Drawing Dead Fish by Leah Aronowsky

Drawing dead fish


Deep in the storerooms of the Smithsonian Institution resides a collection of specimens that could aptly be described as “very dead.” Long forgotten by most scientists—the collection is in fact housed at an off-site storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, about ten miles south of the National Museum of Natural History in D.C.—these are the fish of the US Exploring Expedition, the nation’s first major foray into the world of global maritime exploration. Encompassing a squadron of six ships and just over four hundred naval officers and sailors, the expedition sailed from August 1838 to June 1842, making anchorages in South America, Tahiti, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and Antarctica. Along the way, the crew’s nine civilian “scientifics”—naturalists culled


from the small but growing coteries of urban elite gentlemen-scientists—collected hundreds of thousands of zoological, botanical, and geologic specimens (including these fish), many of which made their way into the foundational collection of what became the Smithsonian. Preserved in spirits, their vibrant colors now faded, these fish today are but sinewy versions of their living selves.

by Leah Aronowsky

Leah Aronowsky is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her current research focuses on the history of the concept of the biosphere in late twentieth-century earth and environmental sciences, especially as it related to new ideas about “life” as a biogeochemical phenomenon and process.

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