Cole Collection of Zoology

Thanks to a well-knit network of Medical Humanities and artist contacts, I had the marvellous opportunity to enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cole Collection – including the Museum & Library – on Tuesday, at the University of Reading.

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Eleanor peruses Victorian microscope slides in the Zoology Museum stores…

It’s especially strange that I studied abroad at the University of Reading – my first home in England – and not once did I hear of this collection (it would be the following year that I’d really get up to my elbows in zoology). Fortunately, that’s been remedied, and there’s a chance I’ll be spending much more time with it.

Francis J. Cole was a Victorian collector of curiosities, and Professor of Zoology at Reading from 1907 – 1939. There is, currently, a small and beautiful Zoology Museum in the centre of campus (nevertheless remarkably difficult to find,) and even more atmospheric zoology teaching rooms which stretch out from this Museum.

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A spontaneous lecture on argonauta from me as the sight of these beauties…

Thanks to Andrew Mangham, who co-directs the Health Humanities research group at Reading, we were able to meet with Curator Amanda Callaghan, who showed us some of the collection highlights, and told us about the forthcoming plans for the whole building to be torn down and an entirely new Zoology Museum and teaching spaces to be set up, over the next three years. It is a particular pity to know that the tall glass ceilings and long wooden tables marked at intervals with microscopes will be wiped out and replaced with something shiny, new, and I anticipate, relatively soulless. The current teaching lab has, no doubt, inspired many a natural historian, and could continue to inspire many more.

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The famous flea of Hooke’s Micrographia.

We were joined for the day by Eleanor Crook, whom I take any chance to collaborate with – she is, to my knowledge, the best sculptor in the UK and probably beyond; wax-modelling craftswoman extraordinaire and also wood-carver, etcher, printmaker… Eleanor specialises in the medical, pathological, and often macabre, and we wanted to spend the day thinking of how she, Andrew, and I might make best use of the Cole Collection (which includes human as well as animal remains) for public engagement and research.

It was particularly thrilling, then, to be welcomed into the Cole Library by archivist Erika Delbecque, and to be with Eleanor when we were invited to pour over (including turning the pages ourselves,) Hooke’s Micrographia, and a first edition of Vesalius’ de Corpora.

A first edition of Vesalius. From 1543.

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And then we went through nearly every page, with great care.

This was so overwhelming, important, and exciting, along with all the rest we’d already seen in the Zoology stores (especially the wet specimens,) that we had to regroup with coffee and biscuits, but not before I was also able to hold a first edition, first print run of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Needless to say that Andrew, Eleanor and I have a lot of ideas brewing about all of this, and more news will certainly be forthcoming.

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