The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet

I am fascinated by natural history collections, so the title of this book caught my eye.  I never would have believed that the story of the namesake of the Douglas fir could be so interesting!  David Douglas was much more than a botanist and his adventures made me long for a time when the country was open for exploration.  Douglas was described as a man of “great activity, undaunted courage, singular abstemiousness and energetic zeal” (Nisbet, 2009) and he definitely lives up to that description in this biography.  He visited the Galapagos a decade before Darwin, explored the Pacific Northwest, and investigated the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Douglas’ story is compelling and the practices of a collector at the time are interesting.  Douglas was usually welcomed and assisted by those he came in contact with, but even in the 1820’s some New York residents were angered at his collecting and accused him of removing the only populations of some rare plants.  One of Douglas’ objectives as he collected was to find new ornamental plants for the gardens of Europe.  This book would be a great place to begin a discussion about the ethics of collecting and how people facilitate the movement of species.

The world of plants is very diverse.  I had to look up some botanical and scientific terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they easily could have been defined in the text.  I was also disappointed in the lack of maps showing Douglas’ travels.  Anyone who has traveled in the area can probably picture the places described and imagine the distances, but my experiences in the Pacific Northwest are limited and I wanted to know where Douglas was on a map as his travels progressed.  Drawings of specimens would also enhance the text of this book.

Anyone with an interest in botany, the Pacific Northwest or exploration will find The Collector worthwhile.  Take the time as you read to look up unfamiliar terms and photos of the plants and animals described in the text.  Make the book an adventure. Travel in the footsteps of an explorer in an unsettled country where anything is possible and discovery happens every day.

Further exploration of David Douglas’ life:

The David Douglas Society

Finding David Douglas

Book Review: Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections by Suzanne Keene

$46.95 on Amazon ($35.21 for Kindle edition)

This book came to me at just the right time.  The need to address the cost of maintaining a collection against its usefulness to the institution and society in general has been much in my thoughts and this book helped me to see that I am not the only one thinking about it.  Ms. Keene covers all of the bases: What good is this stuff?  Who does it belong to?  How well should it be cared for?  Who cares about it and why?  Who should pay for its care?  Who gets to use it?  Should we add to it, keep it in stasis, or dispose of it?

Backed by real-world examples from collections in multiple disciplines and locations, Ms. Keene attempts to defend the need for collections as providing cultural keys and mirrors.  She reflects upon the usefulness of objects in education and research, but more than that the ways in which objects can provide a creative spark, something I would like to see more museums advertise and own.  She also touches upon the responsibility of institutions to care for their collections as well as to make them accessible and relevant in order that others will see them as important and worth funding.  She takes a viewpoint that might be seen as heretical by museums when she separates collections from their institutions in asserting that “collections are all too easily confused with museums, but they are far more durable and valuable than the museum that happens to house them, perhaps temporarily”.  But it wouldn’t be a good read if there wasn’t a bit of controversy!

I recommend this book to anyone who manages or curates a collection, but even more to anyone who exhibits, educates or administers a museum either as staff or trustee.  Those who work with the collection are usually already aware of its value and usefulness, but those who manage the institution may be far removed from the potential it holds and this book might inspire them to visit the shelves and cabinets that hold the treasures of their institution and lead them to seek ways to bring it safely into the light.