As a child, I spent many an afternoon in total awe as I wandered around New York’s American Museum of Natural History, gazing at the wonders behind glass cases and reading about the unfolding of life itself in all its variety and diversity. Now as an adult, I can visit the rare and amazing collection of the Harvard Museum of Natural History with this beautiful and captivating coffee table size book, The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Throughout the pages of this stunning book are the most unusual animals, plants and minerals ever to be displayed in any museum. In fact, this collection is considered to be among the oldest in the country, dating back to the 1700s. Filled with bold and engaging color and black-and-white photos, it transports its reader into the museum itself to witness such objects as the Prodryas persephone, a fossil butterfly which last took flight over thirty-five million years ago; and the elephant bird egg – the largest of any egg produced by any bird or animal on earth. It is as large as 180 chicken eggs. Imagine giving birth to that baby! There are meteors from outer space and bizarre sea creatures from the ocean deep. There are “morpho butterflies” that are male on one side, female on the other, and Meriwether Lewis’s woodpecker – the only complete specimen remaining from the animals collected during the Lewis and Clark expedition.
We read the fascinating story behind lifesaving rain-forest plants, one of which, the Calophyllum, contains a compound that may fight AIDS, and the strange and mysterious “genitalia cabinet” collected by Russian writer and taxonomist Vladimir Nabokov. Seems when he wasn’t writing stories about old men and young girls, he was avidly collecting butterfly genitalia!
Then there are the dodo birds, and there is on display here a semi-real one (skeletal only) and a fake model to give the bones some life. There is even a nearly complete skeletal model of a mastodon, along with a corresponding story of murder and intrigue that would make any fiction novelist envious. Other items include fossilized creatures of great rarity, extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger, and flora and fauna associated with the likes of Charles Darwin, Thoreau and Captain James Cook.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson offers up the rich history of the Harvard Museum and its key players in his informative introduction. The book text is written by former journalist Nancy Pick, who is now a staff writer for the Harvard Museum. Her flair and style breathe life into each object as she describes the story behind the history. And the luscious photos are provided by Mark Sloan, an author and the Director of the Halsey Gallery. Together, their work gels into a book that will fill the reader with a newfound sense of wonder for the world and all its inhabitants, especially those that no longer exist but for the halls and chambers of natural history museums.
Natural history is, undoubtedly, human history, and this book preserves some very rare and very unique moments in time that will thrill, educate and entertain the reader who is eager to embrace the connecting worlds of science, history, humanities and exploration.