Bison bonasus bonasus as a museum exhibit in the 18th – early 20th centuries

A.A. Fedotova

Proceedings of the Zoological Institute RAS, 2018, 322(2): 160–184  ·

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The paper discusses the Białowieża bison (Bison bonasus bonasus) as a museum exhibit in the 18th – early 20th centuries, basing on the analysis of archival documents, mainly from St. Petersburg. One of the last remnants of extinct megafauna once roaming through Europe, by the Early Modern time it had been eliminated in the most part of its previous range. In the 16th –18th century, it had the status of a natural curiosity and an exclusively royal game. In the 18th century, the carcasses of the European bison from the imperial menageries went into the cabinets of curiosities where they became the objects of study for naturalists. By the late 18th century, the last population of the European lowland bison had survived in Białowieża Primeval Forest, which became a part of the Russian Empire with the Third partition of Poland. The attention of the Imperial family, which preserved the system of protection of the European bison and the forest where they lived, ensured the survival of the species till WWI. The development of zoology and zoological collections provided a new status to the Białowieża bison – the status of a valuable gift of the Russian Tsar to a scientific community. To receive such a precious gift, a scientific community had to use its diplomatic and bureaucratic channels, to recruit a naturalist willing to travel to Białowieża, to organize a hunt, to process the skin and bones, and finally, to deliver this massive package to a museum. Nevertheless, throughout the second half of the 19th century, most requests made by European and Russian naturalists were granted and the majority of zoological museums received the European bison from Białowieża, either in form of a stuffed animal, a skeleton, or at least a skull. The transformation of the 17–18th century Kunstkammern into research zoological institutions and the development of taxidermy went in parallel with the transformation of the European bison as a museum exhibit. Stuffed animals became anatomically accurate; new expositions included habitat groups, and some institutions amassed extensive collections for comparative study. The presence of the European bison almost in every major European museum made them well known for wider public. In 1919, the last Białowieża bison was killed in the wild, but the popularity of this species helped the restitution of the animal. Nowadays, the “old” specimens are of interest not only from a historical point of view, but also as a source of samples for genetic research.

Key words

Białowieża Primeval Forest, natural history museums, zoological collections, history of zoology, Bison bonasus bonasus

Submitted February 5, 2018  ·  Accepted April 24, 2018  ·  Published June 25, 2018


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