Among the 18 million specimens in the oldest natural history museum in the United States are contributions from missionaries and ministers who practiced science alongside their faith. To examine this history, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia is hosting The Clergy and the Academy’s Collections.
“It’s important to understand that the Academy’s biological collections, with added support from the library and archives, can come together to tell the story of life on Earth through the people whose passion for natural history, including religious thinkers, contributed to it,” Greg Cowper, the exhibition’s curator, told Hyperallergic. An entomologist at the Academy, Cowper has an ongoing curiosity cabinet of insects gathered at Eastern State Penitentiary; the collection, though unrelated to this exhibition, demonstrates an interest in connecting people to the natural world in unexpected ways.
With specimens like a fluffy bushbaby collected by the Rev. Aldin Grout in South Africa in the 1840s and a jar of long-billed halfbeak fish found by the Rev. Joseph Clemens in 1923 in the Philippines, as well as archival material, the exhibit visualizes the influence of “clergy naturalists” back to the institution’s founding in 1812. “There certainly would have been an Academy without the clergy, but their effort enriches and underscores the Academy’s mission to expand knowledge of nature through discovery and stewardship of the environment,” Cowper explained.
Installed in the museum’s Library Gallery, The Clergy and the Academy’s Collections coincided with the recent visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia. Cowper noted that the Pope reaffirmed the link between the church and the environment with his encyclical on climate change, in which he discussed the interconnectedness of all creatures.
The exhibition similarly focuses on where science and religion intersect, rather than the tension between them (which certainly remains an issue). “The founders were explicit in their desire to keep scientific pursuit unencumbered by religion and politics,” Cowper said. “But it wasn’t religious belief, per se; rather, ‘a mind totally free from all religious and political prejudice, preventions and animosities,’ as stated in the Academy’s founding document of 1812.”
Among the 14 clergy highlighted in the show is the Rev. Henry Christopher McCook, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister and vice president of the Academy who had a fondness for spiders and was an expert on their webs; a letter in which he idly sketched some of their structures is on display. There’s also the Lutheran minister Rev. John Bachman, a naturalist who worked with John James Audubon; one of his now extinct Bachman’s warblers is on view. And then there’s Nicéforo María Antoine Rouhaire, who lived from 1888 to 1908 and was an avid collector on his missions to Colombia. His name endures through several species, like the Bolitoglossa nicefori salamander.
Many people recall that Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel researched pea plant genetics in the 19th century, but the clergy’s experimentation in natural science extends over centuries of religion. It’s not always a war between the two.
The Clergy and the Academy’s Collections continues at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia) through October 30.