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date: 25 January 2022

Abstract and Keywords

Since at least the eighteenth century, Western museums have constituted a technology for making knowledge claims based on the selection, observation, and categorization of a wide range of material things. The underlying schema of museums has changed little since that time, and it assumes certain fundamental distinctions such as that between things in nature and things human-made (the natural and the artificial), and between interchangeable representatives of kinds (specimens) and unique items valued for their aesthetic properties (artworks). This fundamental schema is so stable and authoritative that it can implicitly overrule conflicting taxonomic and systematic claims about museum collections. One example of such a challenge is the volume by the Dutch artist and medical illustrator active in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, Jan van Rymsdyk, and his son, Andreas or Andrew, Museum Brittanicum (1778; second edition, 1791). Rymsdyk proposes a taxonomy of things in the world based on resemblance rather than differentiation, using the technology of the folio book incorporating detailed realistic engravings after his own and his son’s highly naturalistic watercolor drawings of items in the British Museum. These conditions and practices have considerable implications for how historians might use as evidence actual material things in museum collections and representations of them in whatever medium, analog or digital.

Keywords: British Museum, nature, artifice, specimen, artwork, drawing, print, taxonomy, systematics, resemblance

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