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Friends of the Grant Museum Annual Trip: Royal Institution & Linnean Society

By Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh, on 12 December 2013

Dried specimens of twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

Dried specimens of twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

Each year we organise an outing for the members of our Friends programme to visit other museums and attractions. Annual trips are a great way for us to meet the Friends of the Grant Museum and for them to meet other Friends. We try to visit places that aren’t normally accessible to the public or go behind the scenes. As the organiser of this year’s event I got to tag along.

This year we visited the Royal Institution, home to eminent scientists such as Michael Faraday, and the Linnean Society, the world’s oldest active biological society. Here are a few of the things I discovered that day.

The Royal Institution
We started our afternoon at the Royal Institution (Ri) with a talk on its history given by Frank James, Professor of the History of Science and Head of Collections at the Ri. The Ri was founded in March 1799, moving only months later to its current location on Albemarle Street. The building was equipped with laboratories, lecture theatres and meeting rooms in line with its ethos to ‘introduce new technologies and teach science to the general public’. Along the way the Ri’s history was shaped by several people. The most notable figures include Humphry Davy who became Professor of Chemistry in 1802 and established the Ri as one of the major contributors to scientific research, and to the discussion of science through its public lectures. Michael Faraday was appointed laboratory assistant in 1813 and later became Professor of Chemistry in 1833, making several key discoveries during his time. Faraday discovered electro-magnetic induction, which led to the invention of the first electric generator and transformer.

We were then taken down to the Faraday Museum. The Faraday Museum is open to the public Monday to Friday, 9.00-18.00 and is free admission. Within the Museum is a large, interactive display of the periodic table that attracted the attention of some of our younger Friends. With difficulty levels ranging from easy to champion, visitors are challenged to keep up with the periodic table song, selecting (or hitting with excitement) the ten elements discovered by scientists at the Ri (potassium, sodium, barium, calcium, magnesium, strontium, boron, chlorine, iodine and benzene) as they light up.

Thankfully our Friends made champion level so we were then able to tear them away and head to the Ri’s lecture theatre, although not before passing the bride and groom of a wedding that was taking place at the Ri! 🙂 The lecture theatre was designed by Thomas Webster. It hosted many of the Ri’s exceptional lectures and is also home to the Ri’s Christmas lectures, which were founded in 1825. It takes on a similar style to the anatomy lecture theatres of the time, which became very steep as you ascended and were designed to allow a clear view of the lecturer’s bench. Those who know me will know that I’m softly spoken, but that afternoon speaking in the lecture theatre to thank Frank James and Jane Harrison as we departed, without a microphone I felt I could match (perhaps even surpass) the booming tones of a certain colleague in the Grant Museum. This was due to the cunning property of the paper that surrounds the back of the lecture theatre. This embossed Japanese paper reflects the voice of the speaker below back into the lecture theatre, allowing the speaker to be heard by the room without the use of a microphone.

This embossed paper at the back of the Ri lecture theatre allows the speaker's voice to be reflected back into the room.

This embossed paper at the back of the Ri lecture theatre allows the speaker’s voice to be reflected back into the room.

The Linnean Society of London
Following this we made our way to the Linnean Society in Burlington House, Piccadilly where we were given a tour by Deputy Librarian, Elaine Charwat. The Society holds and cares for the botanical, zoological and library collections of the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who is famous for creating the classification system used for naming organisms, which is still in use today. This is the binominal system whereby each organism receives a genus name and a species name specific to that particular organism.
The Society was founded by Sir James Edward Smith who also became the first President of the Society. Following Linnaeus’ death Smith bought Linnaeus’ collection, adding further to it with his own collection, and established the Society as a forum of natural history. The Society moved into Burlington House in 1857.

Our tour began in the Society’s Meeting Room, which retains many of the features popular with its original period style. A large oak desk specially made for the Society takes centre stage within the room. In the history of the Society scientists and amateurs alike would have brought in their specimens and laid them upon the table for identification. Today this room is used for Society meetings and to welcome the new fellows. Presidents of the Society also have the honour of siting at the desk in a crocodile-skin chair. Interestingly this desk is also engraved with designs of the twinflower (Linnaea borealis) – the plant named in honour of Linnaeus, which also features in portraits of Linnaeus and the Society’s coat of arms. Elaine revealed to us later in our tour that Linnaeus likened the twinflower to him in that for most of its lifetime the twinflower, being a creeper and growing close to the ground, is over looked as Linnaeus would have been when he was starting out. But then the twinflower flowers for a brief period and people notice it, as Linnaeus would once his ideas were formed and his research published.

The walls of the Meeting Room are adorned with portraits of past Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Secretaries of the Society. It was within this room that a meeting of the Society took place on 1 July 1858 in which a joint paper by Darwin and Wallace on the theory of evolution by natural selection was presented for the first time. A special plaque commemorates this event and the original portrait of Charles Darwin by John Collier hangs alongside a specially commissioned portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace. Both portraits differ greatly, and not only as a result of the time when they were painted – Darwin in the 1880s and Wallace in the 1990s. Elaine highlighted the sombre appearance of Darwin, who is known to have personally struggled with his discovery of natural selection, to Wallace’s happier and more relaxed seated position. In the background of Wallace’s portrait hangs another painting of a barely decipherable young Wallace meandering down the river on one of his expeditions, which is a striking contrast against the more formal portrait of Darwin. The Society’s commissioned portrait of Wallace was painted from a photograph as there were no surviving portraits of Wallace.

The Library Reading Room
The Library holds monographs and also issues of modern day journals. As part of Wallace100 – an initiative to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death throughout 2013 – on display were Wallace’s pencil drawings from the Amazon and extracts from Wallace’s journals and species notebooks, and the rolled python skin from a python that tried to make its way into Wallace’s hut.

Rolled skin of a python that was collected by Wallace.

Rolled skin of a python that was collected by Wallace.

With her Open House London hat on, Society librarian Lynda Brooks revealed some of the architecture secrets of the Library. Architecturally speaking the Library has the appearance of a double cube room, in which the length of the room is twice that of the width and height, but the room is actually wedge shaped. The side of the building on Burlington House is not parallel with that on Piccadilly, causing the wedge shape of the room. However, a double cube effect is achieved by varying the depth of the wall on the side of the windows.

Pinned butterflies from the Linnean Society's collection store

The Linnaean Collections
Then we headed to a climate-controlled vault to see the Linnaean Collections. Seeing the Linnaean Collections was my highlight of the day. The collection includes Linnaeus’ animal and plant specimens, as well as his library (books he authored and those he used for reference) and personal letters. The oldest book in the collection dates from 1484. The collection holds Linnaeus’ own copies of his book Systema Naturae from the 1st to 12th edition in which Linnaeus introduced his binominal naming system. Within Linnaeus’ books Elaine showed us handwritten notes made by Linnaeus. These were revisions Linnaeus made, often crossing out whole paragraphs, which would sometimes make it into the next edition. The Linnaean Collections include several type specimens – the named example of a species that acts as a reference point for all other members of that species to be identified from. Because of the importance of this collection the Society receives numerous visits from scientists all around the world. Many of the specimens have also been digitised and are available freely online. Unfortunately that was the end of our tour; I certainly could have spent more time looking through this fascinating collection.

Thank you again to all our tour guides on the day. It was great to see and learn more about these establishments, and I really enjoyed my day.

Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh is the Visitor Services Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

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