Opulent Oceans: Extraordinary Scientific Illustrations Exhibit



Showcases Hidden Masterworks in the American Museum of Natural History’s Rare Book Collection


Featuring scientific illustrations portraying the astonishing diversity of ocean life from colorful mollusks to deep sea fishes to a stout dolphin, the exhibition Opulent Oceans: Extraordinary Scientific Illustrations at the Coastal Discovery Museum explores the integral role illustration has played in undersea exploration and discovery. It features 22 exquisite, large-format reproductions from rare and beautifully illustrated scientific works in the American Museum of Natural History Library’s Rare Book collection.

Opening July 16, 2018 the exhibition was inspired by the book Opulent Oceans: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History, and is curated by the author, Melanie L.J. Stiassny., Axelrod Research Curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Ichythology, in collaboration with Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstien Director of the Museum’s Research Library.

The world’s oceans abound with a truly astonishing diversity of life forms. Beginning some 400 years ago, European voyages of discovery began mapping the globe, and knowledge of ocean life flourished as never before. By sketching specimens or collaborating with artists and engravers, explorers documented their discoveries in illustrated books featuring images that communicate the anatomy, life cycles, habits—and sheer beauty—of newfound marine species.

“We really are still in the midst of the great age of ocean discovery and, as an active researcher in the field, I have found it truly inspirational to delve into the past of that discipline,” said Curator Melanie L.J. Stiassny. “This exhibition takes a look back at the lives and contributions of some of those who helped lay the foundations of ocean science and bravely led the way on this continuing journey of discovery.”

Carl Chun

In addition to displaying captivating images created in pursuit of scientific knowledge, Opulent Oceans also touches on the work of such pioneering researchers as Charles Darwin, who spent eight years studying barnacles in his home laboratory, work that established his credentials as a taxonomic expert; zoologist Carl Chun, whose German Deep-Sea Expedition of 1898–1899 discovered thousands of new species, some from depths greater than 13,000 feet; and the influential U.S. ichthyologist David Starr Jordan and his 1902 expedition to American Samoa to assess the country’s marine resources.


Examples of reproductions on display in Opulent Oceans include:

Belon Pierre

● A woodcut of a dolphin based on real-life observation, not fanciful stories, from noted French explorer, physician, and naturalist Pierre Belon’s La nature & diversité des poissons, avec leurs pourtraicts, representez au plus près du naturel (The nature and diversity of fish, with their portraits represented close to nature), published in 1555, and considered the beginning of modern ichthyology.

● An image of acorn barnacles (Megabalanus tintinnabulum) from naturalist Charles Darwin’s four-volume treatise A monograph on the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species (1851–1854). The treatise contains the first classification of any organism based on the evolutionary principle of common descent.

● Illustrations of intricate single-celled marine organisms known as radiolarians by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who described and illustrated such specimens in the thousands. Many of those images were used to create Report on the Radiolaria collected by H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873–1876, published in 1887. His beautiful illustrations and his writings championing evolution inspired both artists and scientists.

● A colorful Bahamian land crab illustrated by English naturalist Mark Catesby for his The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama island: …(1729–1747), the first book to illustrate North America’s natural wonders.

● A frightening image of a vampire squid from hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) from French zoologist Louis Joubin’s Résultats des Campagnes Scientifiques accomplies sur son yacht par Albert 1er Prince Souverain de Monaco (Results of the scientific expeditions of Albert 1st, Sovereign Prince of Monaco on his yacht) from 1920. Despite its ominous name, the vampire squid is only about six inches long and is the only known octopod that is not a predator.

Johannes Peter Müller By G. Berger (lithography) (http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/B19893) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

● An image of the swift shortfin mako shark, one of the 214 shark and ray species illustrated in Systematische Beschreibung der Plagiostomen (Systematic description of the plagiostomes) written by German zoologist Johannes Müller and published in 1841.

Opulent Oceans: Extraordinary Scientific Illustrations is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (amnh.org).