Reflecting on the endeavours of scientists past can provide both inspiration and pleasure.
The face of science is always turned to the future — and that has been the downfall of many a historic scientific collection outside of the mainstream museums.
Take the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural-history collection begun in the 1770s by Lazzaro Spallanzani at the University of Pavia in northern Italy. In the 1930s, the half-million stuffed specimens — from giant turtles to gibbons — were cleared out to make room for a new faculty of law. The collection had become a slight embarrassment, a woefully old-fashioned way of doing science. After sojourning at a nearby palazzo, it was carelessly crammed into the attics of the local Visconti castle for storage. But even the finest address can host insects and microbes, and over the years the collection began to rot.
Similar fates befell other collections around Europe. At best, individual items would be given as amusing gifts to visiting scientists, at worst, the whole lot would be thrown away. Research interests had moved on, teaching methods modernized and, when the student numbers mushroomed after the 1960s, space was needed by new faculty members.
“In recent years a fresh awareness has developed about historic scientific collections.”
But in recent years a fresh awareness has developed about such relics,stirring first in Italy, whose scientific history, from the Renaissance to the start of the twentieth century, is arguably the most important on the continent. In 1991, the Italian association of university rectors set up a committee specifically to ensure that collections in universities were catalogued and cared for. In 2004, the Italian government was persuaded to amend its law on cultural heritage to include the protection of scientific objects, and the next year the Council of Europe passed a like-minded resolution addressing universities across the continent.
Germany was alerted to what is hidden in the forgotten corners of its old universities when those in eastern Germany were required to make inventories at the time of reunification. A project to comprehensively digitize the collections in all the nation's universities is now under way.
Even so, there is little money across the continent for restoration. Back in Pavia, the university cannot find the resources to speed up the painstaking rescue of some of Spallanzani's specimens, and many will be lost forever. On the other hand, several of its other collections have survived well — and they form the basis of the first in Nature's new monthly series paying homage to relatively unknown collections and other scientific monuments off the well-beaten museum track (see page 526). The series will, we hope, inspire a greater interest in where scientists have come from, as well as encouraging those on the conference circuit with a few hours to spare to visit them. Delight is guaranteed.