A taxonomic research is one of the activities undertaken by natural history curators, and it includes a need to illustrate studied specimens. Here is the insight into the viability of traditional illustrating of animal and plants by Ms Gina Allnatt, one of the Manchester Museum’s Biology Curatorial Trainees (funded by the HLF).
In the age of digital photography, many people question whether the need for scientific illustration is still relevant. They argue that the average camera is so powerful these days that hiring an illustrator seems pointless. Even the Royal College of Art seemed to agree with this, as they recently shut down their long running MA course in Natural History Illustration.
However, the tide is turning. People are beginning to realize that science illustration is useful and an important part of science. The Natural History Museum in London recently opened its new Images of Nature gallery to great acclaim.
So why is science illustration important? One of the most important reasons is that it is a visual record of a specimen or species. In some cases, the particular species illustrated may no longer exist, and an illustration will be the only record we have to reconstruct that species.
Similarly, museums and scientists sometimes rely on what are called iconotypes. An iconotype is type specimen that is represented by a painting or drawing instead of a physical specimen. This sometimes happens because a physical type has not been collected when it was described, or because it has been lost. An iconotype is also useful for keeping a record of specimen colours. Animals like fish and cephalopods have colours that fade very quickly after death. Further deterioration of colour happens if the specimen is placed in alcohol. The iconotype tells us what the specimen looked like in life. You can view a video about iconotypes here.
Botanists also benefit from the use of illustration. Leopold Grindon collected newspaper cut outs and book plates to supplement his collection of cultivated specimens. When botanical specimens are pressed on a herbarium sheet, the colour often fades (Fig. 1).
Scientific illustration can also draw attention to a particular part of specimen’s anatomy. This is particularly useful if the specimen is tiny. Though digital cameras can take close up macro shots of specimens, they cannot display the level of detail an illustration can. Illustration can show us cross sections, hairs and other minute details (Fig. 2). The specimen can also be scaled up via a drawing, which is extremely useful for publication (Fig. 3).