Party Like it’s 1899

Before the Internet, before TV, before video games, people in Victorian England had to amuse themselves somehow. Many did so with science. Literacy rates were rising and books were cheap to produce and buy, helping to popularize the latest scientific thinking, such as Charles Darwin’s game-changing theory of evolution by natural selection. Middle- and upper-class men, women, and children eagerly attended science lectures and joined societies of amateur naturalists. And the coolest kids on the block had to have the coolest toy: a microscope.

Nineteenth-century science enthusiasts whiled away evenings studying specimens of everything imaginable: butterfly wings, fish eyes, even paper-thin slivers of human tissue. The specimens were fascinating, but the slides they were mounted on were often works of art in themselves, covered in richly colored paper printed with ornate designs.

TheNAT has a collection of 1,800 (give or take) Victorian microscope slides produced between 1857 and 1917. We’ve put a selection of them on display in our newest exhibition, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science. In this exhibition, visitors can use a touchscreen to examine high-resolution photos of some of our favorite slides up close, zooming in to see extraordinarily fine details on a bat’s wing membrane, a peacock feather, a fossil shark tooth, and many more specimens (even a human Achilles tendon).

These slides are a fascinating—not to mention gorgeous—reminder that citizen science is not a recent invention. Today, you can share photos of your nature discoveries with communities of both professional scientists and other citizen scientists using online platforms like iNaturalist, on which our Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California is built. But it’s important to remind people that folks were having fun practicing citizen science more than a century ago—they just had different tools. 

Posted By Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly.