Almost a year since we nervously stepped into a discordant waltz of distancing measures. Around this time last year, my family and I were packing up our Chicago home to move for my new position with the Museum here in Ottawa. The pandemic had begun creeping into our life. Particles of uncertainty were palpable. A month later, we took flight as the border closed, and I started my job from a quarantine facility.

However stressful, I believe in the value of retrospection. Anyone reading this post has navigated these extremely challenging last twelve months in some shape or form. This is a good time to stop, look back, and give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back.

As someone closely working with museum collections, I would like to offer for this occasion an idea for a Nature-themed Valentine’s Day gift – something you could give your loved ones, or create to treat yourself.

I made such a gift for myself. It looks like this:

Framed natural history print hanging on a wall.
A framed plate from Bashford Dean’s 1906 monograph on ratfish embryology. Image: Tetsuto Miyashita, © Canadian Museum of Nature

This plate illustrates a series of hatchling ratfishes, a wonderful living group of cartilaginous fishes that glide above the seafloor with their wing-like pectoral fins. People who make pilgrimages to old bookstores must be familiar with such pieces of home décor. Any European city has at least one of these antique shops or bookstores. Sometimes they tear pages out of old natural history books and sell them separately. But with this guide, you need not destroy books to make a shrine of natural history art in your home.

Start with a picture frame—8″ by 10″ or 5″ by 7″ will do. Make sure to have access to a reasonably competent colour inkjet printer (laser print adds unnatural glitter). Next comes the fun part: finding the images.

My favourite source is Biodiversity Heritage Library, a massive Smithsonian project to digitally preserve natural history literature. The project has expanded to include a number of international partner collections, including the Rare Book collection held at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The website offers a whole universe of great historical books and journals free from copyright restrictions and can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes if the source information is properly cited. Looking for Oscar Hertwig’s 1906 Handbook for Comparative and Experimental Embryology of Vertebrates? Interested in browsing John Gould’s The Birds of Australia series published in the 1840s? Curious about “Description of Fossil Bones from Antwerp” in Annales du Musée royal d’histoire naturelle de Belgique? All there. The Flickr site provides a shortcut for searching images, but I recommend downloading high-resolution JPEG exports of select pages from the original files on the main site.

The Flickr site of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

For those who are more into modern wildlife photography, I recommend the Photo Ark project of the National Geographic Society by Joel Sartore.

Image of a photography website.
The website for the Photo Ark project, National Geographic Society.

The rest is fairly simple: print the image, then frame and hang it.

At the moment, I am admiring my most recent piece: a plate from a hundred-year old monograph. It was drawn by Japanese illustrator Jujiro Nomura who, through a strange series of coincidences, ended up moving to the United States and living with an eccentric gentleman scientist Edward Phelps Allis. Allis was initially a hobbyist and patron, but developed his expertise in comparative anatomy of fishes late in his life.

Framed natural history print hanging on a wall.
A framed plate from Allis (1922, Journal of Anatomy 56: 189–294) on the cranial anatomy of the lung-possessing fish Polypterus, hanging on the wall of my home office. Image: Tetsuto Miyashita, © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paradoxically, the key to understanding this Ukiyo-e style artwork lies in what was not drawn by the artist. Nomura used colour codes for different types of tissues, so this is not a precise optical communication of the specimen. The whole picture is strangely lacking a sense of three dimensionality, somewhat like modern manga and digital paintings. Because of this reduction, you can almost ‘see’ the gill arches through a veneer of ink, even though there are no complete lines that communicate this information. Nomura used such soft outlines that they are little more than metaphysical shadows. In this sense, this plate exists somewhere unique in the continuum from flesh to inner anatomy.

And yes, Allis and Nomura survived the pandemic of 1918–1919.

If you are happy with the new addition to your wall, I invite you to consider supporting the image sources. Biodiversity Heritage Library and Photo Ark are both preserving the heritage we cannot afford to lose. They are among those I am thankful for, particularly at the anniversary of this hopefully soon-to-be passing time of hardship.