Archival records in museums

The history of a science is often as instructive as science itself. As we study how other people have made scientific breakthroughs, we develop the breadth of imagination that would inspire us to make new discoveries of our own.

Natural history museums were built upon the collections of prints, handwritten documents, rare books and antiquates growing from the “cabinets of curiosities” including exotic specimens of the natural world. Thus, archival collections are an unparalleled resource for historians, researchers, artists and academics. Specimens gathered meanings through associations with people they encountered on their way to the collection, thus linking the history of museums to broader scientific and civic cultures. Archival records also address the use of specimens once they joined the collection, whether classificatory, analytical, or in display.  By thus embedding the study of scientific practice in material culture, collections contribute to the history of science and to the primary role of natural history museums: providing the scientific community with current and historical specimens for research to improve our understanding of the natural world. Today papers, drawings, photographs and other media are generated as a result of the work of LUOMUS open for anyone interested in the natural world.

Using archival records, we are investigating early nineteenth century concepts of biological inheritance. In this historical period heredity was considered as some kind of a force but towards the end of the century more and more approaches discussed the problem as a morphological question about the structure of the hereditary material, how it originated in the course of phylogeny and how it related to the structure of the fully developed organism. Questions about the relationship between generations, internal and external conditions, and between the origin and maintenance of diversity in nature were all addressed in heredity. Hereditary theories also resonated strongly with contemporary debates about relationship between citizen and state, between progress, decline, and tradition. These topics are still relevant in the present.


Poczai P (2022) Heredity Before Mendel. Boca Raton, CRC Press, USA

Poczai P, Santiago-Blay J, Bariska I, Sekerák J, Szabó AT (2022) Mimush sheep and the spectre of inbreeding: historical background for Festetics’s organic and genetic laws four decades before Mendel’s experiments in peas. Journal of the History of Biology 55: 495–536

Poczai P, Karvalics LZ (2022) The little-known history of cleanliness and the forgotten pioneers of handwashing. Frontiers in Public Health 10: 979464

Poczai P, Santiago-Blay JA (2022) Chip of the old block: generation, development, and ancestral concepts of heredity. Frontiers in Genetics 13: 814436

Poczai P, Santiago-Blay JA (2021) Principles and biological concepts of heredity before Mendel. Biology Direct 16:19

Poczai P, Bell N, Hyvönen J (2014) (2014) Imre Festetics and the Sheep Breeders’ Society of Moravia: Mendel’s Forgotten “Research Network”. PLoS Biology 12: e1001772