Case study: Vanessa Finney

I am a doctoral student in the History of Science at the University of Sydney. My thesis examines forms and practices of natural history in Australia from 1830 to 1890. I work as a Curator and Collection Manager at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I am currently a pre-doctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (Sept 2019 to Feb 2020) working on material collected during my Lisa Jardine Award.

Zoological study of the Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) sometimes known as the rat-kangaroo, a marsupial native to Australia, by British illustrator and engraver Sarah Stone. Journal of a voyage to New South Wales by John White, 1790.

Project Summary “Mapping imperial transactions and relationships in the Australian natural history trade, 1860-1900”

Research activity

I carried out research in the Archives of: The Royal Society, Zoological Society of London, Linnaean Society, Natural History Museum, British Library, British Museum, Royal College of Surgeons Archives. I visited collections and exhibitions at: Down House and Charles Darwin Museum; Horniman Museum; Pitt Rivers Museum; Oxford Natural History Museum; Science Museum, Oxford; Ashmolean, Oxford; Wellcome Collection; Kew Gardens (and many other, non-science museums and galleries). I also met with archivists, librarians and collection managers from many of these institutions.

Research findings 

Material collected at The Natural History Museum and the Zoological Society London will be of great use in my doctoral research on the social networks and trade in Australian natural history and also for a wide community of Australian-based scholars researching the history of the trade in Australian nature in the ARC project ‘Merchants and Museums’. Archival material is already being used in current writing on shipping and the logistics of the natural history trade.

The NHM institutional archive in particular contains a wealth of material related to Australian zoology, much of it little-used but of great value for particular specimen-histories as well as larger social histories of Australian science. Details of individual specimen trades and relationships can now be matched with data held at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I now have a clearer view of the quantity and importance of London institutions for Australian natural history (in quantity of trade, perhaps not as significant as I had supposed).

The ZSL Archives were an unexpected source of material, with correspondence as well as details on the extensive live animal trade in Australian animals widening my research thinking.

The archives of the London-based societies of science including Linnaean Society and the Royal Society were less useful than expected. Records of contact with Australian scientists and naturalists were few and perfunctory; Australian-based networks seem to have been much more useful for local science.

Research outputs

Presented a paper at the Society for the History of Natural History conference ‘Trading Nature’ in York, 4-5 June, 2019. Viewed material for possible future exhibition on Australian bird art (Sarah Stone Special Collections). Data files on specimen trade for ‘Merchants and Museums’ project.  ‘Trading Nature’ conference introduced me to a wide range of researchers and curators interested in the history of natural history, many of whom have an interest in Australian material. Blog post on Museum Victoria’s website. Forthcoming paper ‘Chains of Custody, Oceans of Instability: the precarious logistics of the natural history trade’ in writing stage. Doctoral thesis completion date end 2020.