Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cabinet of Alfred Russel Wallace

The title of my blog references cabinets of curiosity, which have been assembled - first in entire rooms and then in pieces of furniture - since at least the 16th c. They reached the peak of popularity in the 17th c. and were again all the rage among the Victorians. One of these 19th c. gentlemen was British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Best known as a co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. for which Charles Darwin (1809-1882) received all the credit, Wallace (7th image) is also notable for advocating Spiritualism, opposing militarism, supporting women's suffrage, warning about deforestation and invasive species, considering whether Mars was habitable, proving that the earth was round, objecting to compulsory vaccination, experimenting with mesmerism, and pioneering biogeography. Imagine owning one of Wallace's historic cabinets, complete with its contents! That privilege belongs to an individual.

Unattributed to the naturalist at the time, the cabinet in question (images above) was purchased in 1979 for $600 by Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Heggestad. He began researching its provenance in 2007. Through handwriting analysis of the labels against correspondence, Heggestad demonstrated that the 1,700-item collection in 26 drawers - including butterflies, beetles, moths, shells, flies, bees, praying mantises, tarantulas, seedpods, a hornet's nest, and a small bird - was assembled by Wallace. And after finding a description of an exotic tea cup-shaped pod that he recognized from his collection, Heggestad began documenting references in Wallace's work to specimens in the cabinet, resulting in a 62-page report to support the theory that the collection once belonged to Wallace. The dates on the specimens correspond to the times and locations where he was conducting field work (U.K. before 1848, Brazil from 1848 to 1852, and Indonesia/Malaysia from 1854 to 1862) and the construction of the cabinet matches the design that the scientist himself advocated. It is Wallace's only known personal collection still in its original cabinet. It is believed that the specimens in the rosewood cabinet were assembled for instructional purposes by the scientist, who visited the U.S. only once - in 1886/1887 - on a lecture tour.

To allow the historical collection more of an audience than visitors to his dining room, Haggestad has offered the cabinet for sale to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. The cabinet was loaned to the AMNH in New York in 2009 for a display commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species by the Means of Natural Selection. "When you see how and what specimens are laid out in this cabinet, the organizing mind of one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century is revealed," says one curator. Great yes, household name no. But Wallace never cared about notoriety and never begrudged his fate. He became Darwin's friend, used the term "Darwinism" to describe the theory of evolution they had arrived at independently, and said that Darwin deserved the glory.


  1. When I need inspiration, I sometimes go and visit his grave......the stone is a huge bit of fossilised tree. Next time I am over there, I will take some photos for you. Wallace is certainly a familiar name in our house!

  2. What an amazing & wondrous cabinet! I would love to be able to go see it. ^-^


You may add your comments here.