Art and Architecture, Biology, Books for the News, Commentary

#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

American Scientist explores several centuries-worth of zoology on paper at the British Library in a review + “digital menagerie” from The Paper Zooan excerpt from which follows below.


Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.”

By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough.

In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in distant corners of the world. Further, the very act of drawing proved useful to some scholars as they strove to prove hypotheses; later on, sharing the finished illustration could lend additional credence to the research. A particularly fascinating example involves a meticulous study undertaken by 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who performed computations and made architectural-style drawings to ascertain whether all land-dwelling species known to European scientists at the time could have fit on Noah’s ark. He believed his calculations verified the physical viability of the biblical story. This intertwining of the spiritual and the scientific wasn’t unusual at the time, and Kirchner’s detailed drawing, included as a two-page spread in The Paper Zoo, is a tidy marvel of its day. The scholar’s attempt to work out the scale of the ark and its cargo looks very much like a precursor to contemporary infographics. You can almost picture its headline in some imagined antecedent of today’s science magazines: “Ship Shape: How Noah Pulled It Off.”

Sleigh reminds us that for several centuries illustrations of the world’s fauna, whether depicted in woodcuts, etchings, engravings, or even stained glass church windows, provided the only way most people could acquire familiarity with creatures that existed outside their own particular ecosystem. Until zoological gardens began appearing in the early 19th century, the menageries assembled by aristocrats had a tightly exclusive viewership. (The Royal Menagerie kept on the grounds of the Tower of London was a notable exception.) The paper zoo, as Sleigh calls it, became a kind of “democratized menagerie,” one that brought a wider understanding of the animal world to a broader public.


To read the American Scientist review in full, click here.

To see a “digital menagerie” assembled from 
The Paper Zoo
, click here.

To read more about The Paper Zoo, click here.