‘Curious in Our Way’The Culture of Nature in Philadelphia, 1740 to 1840

A symposium exploring the visual culture of American natural history November 18-November 21, 2004 in Philadelphia

Organizing institutions: Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; American Philosophical Society; Bartram’s Garden; Center for American Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Henry E. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; Yale Center for British Art

Curious in Our Way will bring together thirteen eminent historians of art, science, and material culture to engage in the most intensive exploration of the visual culture of American natural history to date. Speakers will focus on the city of Philadelphia, which encompassed North America’s largest and most active scientific community from the colonial period through the first decades of the republic. Their papers will introduce both scholarly and public audiences to the complex interrelationships that developed between the visual arts and the broad study of natural history, comprising what would become, with increasing specialization in the early nineteenth century, various branches of the life and earth sciences, from botany and zoology to geology and paleontology. Through the in-depth analysis of drawings and related specimens of flora and fauna, and other natural productions, as well as illustrated books and scientific journals, the speakers will demonstrate that the prominent and tight-knit group of Philadelphia naturalists who formed the central core of North America’s scientific community during the period under question were at the hub of an active, trans-Atlantic exchange involving both images of the natural world and the stuff of nature, itself. The material productions of well over thirty naturalists will be considered, including such major figures as Mark Catesby, John and William Bartram, Benjamin Smith Barton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Alexander Wilson, Charles Willson Peale, Titian Ramsay Peale II, Charles Alexandre Lesueur, and John James Audubon, as well as many lesser-known lights.

At the same time that Philadelphia naturalists were sending drawings of the natural productions of North America to their European counterparts, along with dried and living plants and seeds, live and preserved animals, and specimens of other natural forms, the recipients of these American exotics were sending back to their Philadelphia suppliers a wide assortment of European, as well as African and Asian, animals and plants, both preserved and live, for their own burgeoning collections. And yet, this multifaceted story of exchange involved far more than drawings, specimens, and living things. Myriad letters and treatises describing natural productions and phenomena left Philadelphia for Britain and the Continent, while illustrated books and letters on the natural world were sent by European colleagues to help build Philadelphia libraries. In fact, well into the nineteenth century, Philadelphians largely modeled their scientific societies, lending libraries, academies, colleges, universities, and publications on British and continental examples, and these numbered among the most important in both the colonies and the young republic. Often through the auspices of such fledgling institutions as the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company, Philadelphians came to correspond closely with European naturalists, forming far-flung webs of collegial exchange about the natural world. After the Revolution, the British centers of science with which Philadelphians developed close ties expanded beyond London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and Edinburgh, to include Liverpool, Manchester, and Dublin, as well as smaller, more provincial scientific communities. The Revolution also dramatically strengthened direct ties with France and other continental centers of science.

Speakers will discuss closely interrelated materials from all phases of these trans-Atlantic relationships of exchange, from drawings and dried plant specimens sent by John and William Bartram to the London linen draper and naturalist, Peter Collinson, in the 1750s, and the illustrated books on natural history, botany, and gardening that Collinson sent in return, to drawings of Peale Museum displays executed in Philadelphia by the French naturalist-artist, Charles Alexandre Lesueur, and brought back to colleagues in Le Havre and Paris when he returned to his native land in 1837. Objects demonstrating the intimate relationships of exchange and influence between Philadelphia naturalist-artists and colleagues residing in other important centers of science in North America, such as Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, Cambridge, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, will also be examined, as will objects reflecting such relationships with colleagues in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas.

Symposium events will include two days of papers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and visits to the exhibitions Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and Stuffing Birds, Pressing Plants, Shaping Knowledge: Natural History in North America, 1730-1860, at the American Philosophical Society, as well as a morning trip to Bartram’s Garden. The exhibitions and garden visit will enable participants to view for themselves many of the types of objects examined in the symposium, as well as the historic settings in which these objects were collected, propagated, and discussed.

The symposium is being organized collaboratively by the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; The American Philosophical Society; Bartram’s Garden; The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA); and the Yale Center for British Art. A collection of essays related to the symposium papers, entitled The Culture of Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740-1840, edited by Amy Meyers, Director of the Yale Center for British Art, will be published by Yale University Press in winter 2006.

Registration information and program can be found on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, http://www.philamuseum.org/education/symposia.shtml. Participants may register by calling (215) 235-SHOW (7469). Registration is $100 for the general public, $80 for members and $55 for staff of the six organizing institutions (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; American Philosophical Society; Bartram’s Garden; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Henry E. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; and the Yale Center for British Art), and $50 for students and senior citizens. Your registration ticket covers admission to the PMA galleries during the symposium; box lunches and coffee breaks for both PMA symposium days; admission to the viewings offered at the APS and ANSP; the reception at the APS; the visit to Bartram’s Garden; and transportation between the various venues.

Accommodations: Special room rates of $99 per night are available through our official symposium host hotel, the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia, by phoning 215-561-7500 or 1-800-2-Crowne and mentioning the Curious in Our Way symposium