It is not often that you can visit a world-class museum exhibition from the comfort of your own living room, but that is the experience the Natural History Museum is offering the more relaxed museum-lover, with a third of its art exhibitions now available online. One such virtual exhibition, entitled Natural Wonders - Images from the Indian Subcontinent, features more than 40 drawings and paintings of rare south-Asian owls, monkeys, elephants and plants, selected from 10 major collections of natural-history art from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Chris Mills, the museum's collections manager, explains that it was a desire to make the Natural History Museum's collection more accessible to the public, that motivated them to start the website. "We are aware that we have so many items in our archives, but can physically only display a small percentage of these in the public galleries. By putting items online we can give people a better impression of some of the things we have. Obviously, it's not the same as seeing the real thing, but at least more people are seeing the collection than have been able to in the past."
The size and range of the art collection at the museum is impressive. It boasts more than one million books (including a copy of Pliny's Historia Naturalis that dates back to 1469), and about half a million works of art, ranging from small sketches on two- inch-wide pieces of paper through to 10x6ft canvases of life-size birds. There are also about 150,000 manuscripts, 150,000 maps, and 100,000 photographs. As Mills says: "It's the largest art collection of natural-history paper material anywhere in the world. From about the 17th century onward, anyone who is anyone in natural-history art illustration, from Sydney Parkinson, who was on Captain Cook's first voyage, to Edward Lear, who was a naturalist drawer, is represented in the collection."
Acceptance into this august company is dependent upon satisfying certain criteria. The artistic and aesthetic aspects of the picture are ignored - a watercolour or drawing must be technically accurate so that it can be of value to what Mills calls "the taxonomic work that is at the heart …