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Boxes for rabbits: historical packing material in the ZMA collections

Posted on 30-04-2018 by Karen van Dorp - collection manager Invertebrates


When you enter a natural history collection, your eye is immediately caught by interesting and spectacular objects that make up a representation of life on earth; neatly organized in jars, boxes and drawers. These natural history specimens have been collected by scientists over the past decades and sometimes even centuries, and each of them provides us with a unique time travelling experience: that specific animal, stone or plant was present at a specific time at a specific place on earth, which gives researchers insight in the natural world - past, present and future. Natural history collections contain endless information about life on earth, and are therefore utterly important. But what about all the jars, boxes, drawers, and cabinets the objects are stored in? Just like the specimens, they can tell very interesting tales. This is the story behind the evocative historical packing material that is mostly found among the Invertebrate collections of the former Zoological Museum Amsterdam - little boxes in an array of vibrant colours, with beautiful printed labels on them.


Echinoderms stored in historical ZMA boxes. Photo Karen van Dorp, Naturalis Biodiversity Center


In 2010, the collections of the Zoological Museum Amsterdam merged with those of the National Museum for Natural History Naturalis and the Dutch National Herbaria to form Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.Immediately, all of us from the Department of Collections in Leiden were charmed by the historical boxes that came with the ZMA collections - they did not look like any of the boxes we knew from the Leiden collections, and we became curious about the story behind them. The origin of historical packing material is generally not well documented in natural history museums, as was the case here as well. Luckily, we can still ask questions about matters like these to Professor Van Der Spoel, who used to work on the plankton collections in Amsterdam. He informed us about how the colourful boxes ended up as packing material for specimens in the ZMA collections.


During the Second World War, the German occupier found Artis Zoo in Amsterdam an appreciable attraction for German soldiers. Due to this special status for Artis, the Zoo was allotted food for the animals, and rules were observed a little less strictly - Jewish people even went into hiding in the aquarium building. A famous Dutch department store called ‘De Bijenkorf' (Jewish by origin) was amongst the enterprises in Amsterdam that suffered greatly during the war, and was hardly able to offer any goods - and thus got stuck with a useless stock of packing material.

Historical boxes in ZMA collection. Photos Karen van Dorp, Naturalis Biodiversity Center 


The Zoological Museum Amsterdam had a strong connection with Artis Zoo, and the museum staff (especially professors De Beaufort and Engel) set up a barter trade with De Bijenkorf - packing material and glass jars went from the department store to the museum, and part of the food that was meant for the zoo animals went to the department store personnel. Rabbits were bred at Artis Zoo, and they were also traded for packing material for the collections. The lovely, colourful boxes that are found in the Invertebrate collections of the ZMA were amongst the packing material that came from De Bijenkorf.

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