Vestiges of 125,660 Specimens of Natural History

by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin


As vestiges of 125,660 Specimens of Natural History, we have selected a number of images and photographs to relay some impressions of the exhibition 125.660 Spesimen Sejarah Alam, which we curated in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2015, and which Anna-Sophie also presented at the “Between the Discursive and the Immersive” conference, held at the Louisiana Museum later that year.

The exhibition was the first iteration of the ongoing curatorial research project—Reassembling the Natural—which addresses colonial natural history collections through the environmental transformations they produced. More specifically, the project engages with the contemporary legacy of the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), best known for co-discovering the theory of evolution by natural selection. From 1854 to 1862, Wallace travelled the Malay Archipelago, documenting the region’s biodiversity and amassing a gigantic collection of 125,660 specimens for European museums. In the context of his exploration, he also kept meticulous notebooks and journals, sent letters, and wrote numerous scientific articles and books, most notably the travel chronicle, The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise—A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature, published in 1869 after his return to England.

By inviting artists to retrace, re-appropriate, or reassess Wallace’s expedition, specimens, documents, and various artifacts, the exhibition 125.660 Spesimen Sejarah Alam explored how trans-cultural collaborative approaches to artistic and scientific practice can address urgent environmental questions. The exhibition took place from August to September 2015 at the gallery of the multi-arts center Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta, Indonesia. The exhibition presented works by 26 contributors—including ten newly created artworks by artists from Indonesia—alongside archival materials, historical objects, and zoological specimens from the Research Center for Biology, Indonesian Institute of Science (MZB/LIPI) at Bogor-Cibinong.

The exhibition included artworks and contributions by Ari Bayuaji, Shannon Castleman, Lucy Davis, Mark Dion, Fred Langford Edwards, Sigrid Espelien & farid rakun (EQUANORTH), Theo Frids Hutabarat, Geraldine Juarez, Flora Lichtman & Sharon Shattuck, Cindy Lin & Lintang Radittya, Aprina Murwanti & Bharoto Yekti, Intan Prisanti, Edwin Scholes & Tim Laman, Ary Sendy, Andreas Siagian, Zenzi Suhadi (WALHI), Laleh Torab, Satrio Wicaksono (Towuti Drilling Project), Tintin Wulia, Mahardika Yudha, Robert Zhao Renhui.

The zoological specimens presented in the exhibition were selected in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Rosichon Ubaidillah, Dr Awit Suwito, Dr Amir Hamidy, Ir. Maharadatunkamsi, Dr. Djunijati Peggie, and Mohammad Irham from the Pusat Penelitian Biologi, Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (MZB/LIPI), Cibinong, Indonesia.


Fig, 1. Photo: Workshop participants gathering at the Biology Research Centre, Museum Zoologi Bogor, Cibinong, Indonesia, May 2015.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Photo: Workshop participants gathering at the Biology Research Centre, Museum Zoologi Bogor, Cibinong, Indonesia, May 2015.

Preparing the project involved curatorial research in the collections of international institutions such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde, The Linnean Society London, The Natural History Museum in London and Tring, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as fieldwork in Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. We were fortunate, moreover, to establish a unique curatorial partnership with the scientific curators of the Museum Zoologi Bogor (MZB) that once belonged to the largest institution of colonial science in Southeast Asia, the Buitenzorg Botanical Garden. Since Indonesian independence, the garden has been a part of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI). After 13 Indonesian artists were selected based on an open call for proposals, we held a workshop in MZB’s scientific collection to engage the artists and zoologists for the first time in a discussion about the projects in progress. Many of the artworks were developed based on this exchange. Furthermore, the exhibition at Komunitas Salihara presented a range of taxidermy and scientific specimens that were on loan from the collection. Since all but two of Wallace’s original specimens are kept in museums in the western hemisphere, this collaboration was essential and afforded us the possibility to show many of the birds, insect, reptile and mammal species that played a role in Wallace’s investigations.

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Fig. 2. Photo: Wallace in Singapore circa 1862.

Fig. 3. Map of Malay Archipelago. This map from Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago (1869) indicates his route throughout the region of 17,000 islands. During his expedition, Wallace collected the immense 125,660 zoological specimens to document and comprehend the biodiversity of the region—still considered a biodiversity hotspot today, even while facing an urgent extinction crisis due to the relentless destruction of the rainforests.

Fig. 04. Photo by the authors. Courtesy of The Linnaean Society, London.

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Fig. 4. Based on studying his collection, Wallace formulated groundbreaking ideas regarding biogeography and the theory of evolution by natural selection. This photo shows pages of his Species Notebook with a list of specimens collected between 14 March and 1 April 1855. At the bottom of the list, Wallace wrote the sum (1,428) and calculated an average of 71 specimens per day. Photo by the authors. Courtesy of The Linnaean Society, London.

Fig. 05. Frontispiece of the first edition of A.R. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, 1869.

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Fig. 5. Frontispiece of the first edition of A.R. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, 1869.

Although it is common to attribute the theory of evolution by natural selection to Charles Darwin, in fact, Darwin only published his views on the subject after letters had arrived from Sarawak (1855) and Ternate (1858), in which the young Wallace stated his own ideas of species transmutation, or evolution.

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Fig. 6. A colonial scientists posing in a greenhouse at Buitenzorg Botanical Garden, Bogor, Indonesia, early twentieth century. Photo courtesy of Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (LIPI).

With the exhibition we were interested in exploring Wallace’s collection as a document of modern colonial science and the ways in which the region has been transformed since Wallace’s expedition 150 years ago. This means we took Wallace as a narrative protagonist to obliquely investigate the transition and feedback loops between colonial views of “tropical nature” to seeing the tropics as a “natural resource”—both for colonial knowledge production and the extraction of a vast array of materials ranging from wood to minerals to exotic birds to women and cheap labour.

Fig. 07. Drone photograph of deforested rainforest in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for the purpose of planting a new oil palm plantation. Courtesy of WALHI.

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Fig. 7.Drone photograph of deforested rainforest in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for the purpose of planting a new oil palm plantation. Courtesy of WALHI.

Indonesia is now the world’s largest producer of palm oil, a vegetable oil that is contained in an incredible range of products on the global market. With the exhibition, we experimented with the format of the art exhibition, the natural history exhibition, and the thematic exhibition, in order to create a space for rethinking Wallace’s story and the scientific history of colonial Indonesia from the perspective of contemporary environmental urgency.

Fig. 08. Oil palm fruits ready for harvest in the crown of a palm tree in Bengkulu Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Etienne Turpin, 2014.

Fig. 8.

Fig. 8. Oil palm fruits ready for harvest in the crown of a palm tree in Bengkulu Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Etienne Turpin, 2014.

The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is endemic to west and southwest Africa. Presently, 30% of the world’s vegetable oil is derived from the nutty, spiky fruits of this plant species. Introduced to colonial Southeast Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, today 80% of all globally produced and exported crude palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Oil palm plantations require deforestation; they convert the natural habitats of highly adapted—yet often fragile—local species coexisting with each other in unique biological systems into monoculture landscapes of rows and rows of palms.

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Fig. 9.

nstallation view of a rare specimen of a concrete cast rhino footprint from MZB’s collection.

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Fig. 9. Orangutan skull in MZB’s mammal collection. Photo by Etienne Turpin, 2014.

Fig. 10. Installation view of a rare specimen of a concrete cast rhino footprint from MZB’s collection.

The rapid deforestation and habitat destruction of vast areas of rainforest in contemporary Indonesia has put a large number of species including orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos under heavy threat. Against this background, the exhibition asked: what is the changing role of a colonial natural history collection in the Anthropocene?

Figs. 11–13. Artists visiting the MZB collection for the first time during the workshop with scientific curators. Photos by Etienne Turpin, 2015.

Fig. 14. Photo by Anna-Sophie Springer, 2015.

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Fig. 14. Looking for a modular exhibition design that would provide an aesthetic frame for the myriad elements of the exhibition, we decided to appropriate the simple lab furniture of the MZB collection. We custom-built 27 tables based on this table in the spirit collection, displacing, one could say, the space of the collection into the space of the gallery. Photo by Anna-Sophie Springer, 2015.

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Fig. 15-16. In the exhibition these tables were arranged as clusters, or “islands,” each modified to accommodate a specific vitrine, artwork, video screen, etc. Basic labels contextualized the materials on view, yet without reproducing or imposing any common disciplinary hierarchies between scientific, historic, artistic, or documentary productions.

Fig. 17–18. The first table offered a free catalog as a conjunctive navigational tool for the visitors.

Fig. 19–20. Installation views of the catalog with The Animated Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, digital video by Flora Lichtman & Sharon Shattuck, 2013. Exhibition catalog designed by Alexandra Berceanu.

Fig. 21. Since the exhibition took as a point of departure Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago, the conceptual conjunction of the book and the exhibition was continued through eight wall panels inspired by Wallace’s chapter structure and biogeographical analysis of the archipelago. The exhibition did not prescribe any specific route and instead alluded to possible connections between the materials, leaving it to the visitors to discover and question assumptions, correlations, and causalities. Detail of a wall panel in the exhibition.

Fig. 22–26. Installation views of scientific specimens present in Wallace’s writing. While these are not the original objects collected by Wallace, the loans from MZB’s collection dated back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Fig. 27–28. Install views of Andreas Siagan, Loreng: Kisah dari Jejak Citra Harimau Indonesia (2015) an installation comprising a vast selection of annotated photographs of colonial tiger hunts exhibited together with a tiger skin and a tiger skull from the MZB collection.

Figs. 29–30. Install views of Aprina Murwanti & Bharoto Yekti, Obsessive Collecting (2015) an installation consisting of 3-D printed hobby kits based on Wallace’s extensive collection of beetles as he once sold it to museums.

Fig. 31. Evoking the lithograph “Natives of Aru Shooting the Great Bird of Paradise” from Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, the trees Ari Bayuaji documented in his photo series Paradise Almost Lost (2014) are littered with plastic garbage.

Fig. 32. Installation view of the lithograph next to a great bird of paradise specimen and the first letter Darwin wrote back to Wallace.

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Fig. 33-34. An oval space, the gallery walls displayed a selection of large-format photographs by the British photographer Fred Langford Edwards. With his ongoing series Re-Collecting Alfred Russel Wallace (2007–present), Edwards has been documenting the original Wallace specimens in British natural history museums such as in London, Tring, Cambridge, Liverpool, and Cardiff. By presenting the photographs in Jakarta, traces of the specimens were temporarily re-connected to their place of origin. 

Fig. 37–40. Install views of the installation Kertiyasa: Reproducing Reproductions (2015) by the artist duo EQUANORTH (architect farid rakun and ceramicist Sigrid Espelien). Stylizing the design of a variety of indigenous housing types, the work explored the legacy of the Jakarta theme park Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, that dates back to the Soeharto government. Designed as another collection of the archipelago, the park was a symbol of the aim to unify the diverse region as a nationalist project.

Fig. 41–42. Installation view of Slimy Friction (2015) by Cindy Lin & Lintang Radittya. Consisting of small circuit-bent sirens welded on aluminum plates and specimens from the MZB collection of miniature snails described by and named after Wallace, the work draws a connection to the encroachment of heavy aluminum mining on the habitat of snail species in Kalimantan.

Fig. 43. Install view of Theo Frids Hutabarat, Tracing Insulinde—Zeemansgid to Oost- Indische Archipel (2015), a mixed media installation based on colonial maps of Indonesia.

Fig. 44–45. Install view of Tintin Wulia, Still/Life (2015). Playing with the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, mosquito larvae were used to feed a live fish. But once hatched, they had the option to escape into the gallery to pester the visitors.

Fig. 46–47. Install views Shannon Castleman, Tree Wounds, Muna Islands, Sulawesi, (2010–11), a series of photographs documenting the incremental logging process undertaken by many villagers—once the tree falls, no one is to blame.

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Fig. 48.

Fig. 48. Install view of a selection from Robert Zhao Renhui, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World (2013) mapping the new postnatural, anthropogenic species of Southeast Asia.

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Fig. 49–50. Install view of collages by Lucy Davis, In which Alfred Russel Wallace Journeys to the Interior (2015), and her animation film, Jalan Jati (Teak Road) (2012), tracing Wallace’s journey to the island of Sulawesi and the colonial teak trade networks between Indonesia and Sulawesi.

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Fig. 51. Install view of Mark Dion’s drawing, Anthropocene Monument (2014).

125.660 Spesimen Sejarah Alam was realized in partnership with the multi-arts center Komunitas Salihara and the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense/Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI/MZB), in cooperation with Schering Stiftung and with additional support of the Goethe-Institut, the British Council, and the Office for Contemporary Art, Norway.

A second iteration of the project will be released in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017.

Reassembling the Natural is a project by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin.

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