For the sixth edition of  Local Issues and Locales, Honours in Curatorship student Adele van Heerden explores the use of cabinets in the university, with a particular focus on those found in the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology’s Niven Library. 

According to Martin Lawn, in Pedagogy for the Public: The Place of Objects, Observation, Mechanical Production and Cupboards (2013), institutional education in the form of the school or university has a material dimension, with an observation and study of objects as an aid to teaching. In the 19th Century the ‘Object Lesson’ was developed, a highly constructivist pedagogical system, as a means of learning through observation and the drawing of objects. The collection and storage of such objects used for teaching led to the creation of teaching cabinets, filled with objects for students to learn from. The creation of the ‘Object Lesson’ and the rise of its popularity resulted in a need to create an adequate cabinet for storage and display, with progressive school boards and leading schools showing initiative in collecting more and more.

The collection and classification of natural history specimens became a widespread practice in the 19th Century as many deemed it an important aspect of nature study. The ‘scientific’ documentation, organization, preservation, and description of specimens became important exercises for students. Urban natural history collections and botanical gardens provided students and faculties with visual references in the age before the commonplace use of photography, and cabinets soon became the visual counterparts of planned lessons.

The Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology is a section within the Biological Sciences Department of the University of Cape Town. ‘The Fitztitute’, as it is affectionately called, focuses on conservation biology and evolutionary ecology. An example of some beautifully unique teaching cabinets can be found in the Niven Library, part of the Fitztitute, located in the John Day building. The Niven Library contains many periodicals, journals and specimens relating to ornithology in the African context, with special attention to South Saharan species. The collection includes the Birdlife SA collection, the Percy Fitzpatrick Trust (donations) collection, the Richard Brooke Memorial Reprint Collection and the Animal Demography Unit collection.

The Peter Steyn Egg Collection, housed in a cupboard of drawers inside the Niven Library, is a remarkable collection of diverse specimens presented to the Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology in 2007. Steyn started collecting eggs in 1949, when he was still in primary school, and continued collecting throughout his life and travels. Aside from the eggshells, there are also a few notebooks, some dating from Steyn’s younger days, which signify the highly personal nature of the cabinet.

Between 1949 and 1961, during his school years, he collected eggshells in the Cape region. It was during this period that he found a clutch of 8 African Moorhen eggs on the Cape Flats, which is situated in drawers 2 and 9 today. Drawer 3 contains eggs collected in the period between 1961 and 1977 during which Steyn lived and worked in Zimbabwe. In the Essexvale (Esigonweni) district, where Steyn taught at Falcon College, he managed to collect many infertile Raptor eggs which form an important part of the collection.

Some of the infertile eggs, such as those of the Cape Vulture or the various Eagle specimens, serve as an important reference source by providing an example of eggshells thinning due to pesticide contamination (Steyn, Personal Communication, 2015).

I find this cabinet particularly interesting because, aside from its scientific and pedagogical nature, one person collected all of its contents over the course of many years as he worked and travelled. Thus, the eggs that he collected are associated with different memories and periods of his life. It is not very often that students are given such insight into the origin, history and sentimentality of collections.

Peter Steyn's Egg CollectionSteyn considered the Fitztitute a safe place for these eggs, as they are often stolen by unscrupulous collectors from museums. Additionally, his numerous notebooks could serve as important reference material to students looking into the history of bird populations in the different areas.

Example of Victorian TaxidermyAnother cabinet to be found in the Fitztitute comprises of 21 taxidermy birds, as an example of Victorian Taxidermy, presented by the Durban City Council. The Bird Cage, as it is often referred to, is an odd sight in an institute which prides itself on conservation and the study of bio- diversity, but nonetheless it is an interesting example of the changing trends in zoological study. Before the widespread use of photography, the collection and preservation of animal specimens would have been vital to observing them in classrooms. In our e-mail correspondence, Steyn has mentioned that specimens such as bird skins, like the ones in the museum at Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, have served as important research materials for both artists and illustrators. One such example is the illustrations done for Steyn’s own publication Birds of Prey of Southern Africa (1982) which has 24 colour copper plates based on these skins.

Peter Steyn's Notebook from his school days of egg collecting  European Wigeon Specimen, collected near Haydon Bridge in 1907 by G.E. Crawhail.

Image captions, in order of appearance –

Figure 1: A Drawer in the Cabinet containing Peter Steyn’s Egg Collection

Figure 2: An Example of Victorian Taxidermy Presented by the Durban City Council

Figure 3: Peter Steyn’s notebook dating from his school-going days 

Figure 4: A European Wigeon Specimen, collected Near Haydon Bridge, presented to the Fitzpatrck Institute in 1907