People from almost every culture love collecting things. They might collect stamps, books, cards, priceless paintings or worthless ticket stubs to old sports games. Their collection might hang on the walls of a mansion or be stored in a box under the bed. So what is it that drives people to collect? Psychologist Dr Maria Richter argues that urge to collect is a basic human characteristic. According to her, in the very first years of life we form emotional connections with lifeless objects such as soft toys. And these positive relationships are the starting point for our fascination with collecting objects. In fact, the desire to collect may go back further still. Scientists suggest that for some ancient humans living hundreds of thousands of years ago, collecting may have had a serious purpose. Only by collecting sufficient food supplies to last though freezing winters or dry summers could our ancestors stay alive until the weather improved.
It turns out that even collecting for pleasure has a very long history. In 1925, the archaeologist Leonard Woolley was working at a site in the historic Babylonian city of Ur. Woolley had travelled to the region intending only to excavate the site of a palace. Instead, to his astonishment, he dug up artefacts, which appeared to belong to a 2,500- year-old museum. Among the objects was part of a statue and a piece of a local building. And accompanying some of the artefacts were descriptions like modern-day labels. These texts appeared in three languages and were carved into pieces of clay. It seems likely that this early private collection of objects was created by Princess Ennigaldi, the daughter of King Nabonidus. However, very little else is known about Princess Ennigaldi or what her motivations were for setting up her collection.
This may have been one of the first large private collections, but it was not the last. Indeed, the fashion for establishing collections really got started in Europe around 2,000 years later with so-called ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’. These were collections, usually belonging to wealthy families that were displayed in cabinets or small rooms. Cabinets of Curiosities typically included fine paintings and drawings, but equal importance was given to exhibits from the natural world such as animal specimens, shells and plants.
Some significant private collections of this sort date from the fifteenth century. One of the first belonged to the Medici family. The Medicis became a powerful political family in Italy and later a royal house, but banking was originally the source of all their wealth. The family started by collecting coins and valuable gems, then artworks and antiques from around Europe. In 1570 a secret ‘studio’ was built inside the Palazzo Medici to house their growing collection. This exhibition room had solid walls without windows to keep the valuable collection safe.
In the seventeenth century, another fabulous collection was created by a Danish physician name Ole Worm. His collection room contained numerous skeletons and specimens, as well as ancient texts and a laboratory. One of Ole Worm’s motivations was to point out when other researchers had made mistakes, such as the false claim that birds of paradise had no feet. He also owned a great auk, species of bird that has now become extinct, and the illustration he produced of it has been of value to later scientists.
The passion for collecting was just as strong in the nineteenth century. Lady Charlotte Guest spoke at least six languages and became well-known for translating English books into Welsh. She also travelled widely throughout Europe acquiring old and rare pottery, which she added to her collection at home in southern England. When Lady Charlotte died in 1895 this collection was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. At around the same time in the north of England, a wealthy goldsmith named Joseph Mayer was building up an enormous collection of artefacts, particularly those dug up from sites in his local area. His legacy, the Mayer Trust, continues to fund public lectures in accordance with his wishes.
In the twentieth century, the writer Beatrix Potter had a magnificent collection of books, insects, plants and other botanical specimens. Most of these were donated to London’s Natural History Museum, but Beatrix held on to her cabinets of fossils, which she was particularly proud of. In the United Stats, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his stamp collection as a child and continued to add to it all his life. The stress associated with being president was easier to cope with, Roosevelt said, by taking time out to focus on his collection. By the end of his life this had expanded to include model ships, coins and artworks.
Most of us will never own collections so large or valuable as these. However, the examples given here suggest that collecting is a passion that has been shared by countless people over many centuries.
A For much of the twentieth century, documentary films were over shadowed by their more successful Hollywood counterparts. For a number of reasons, documentaries were frequently ignored by critics and film studies courses at universities. Firstly, the very idea of documentary film made some people suspicious. As the critic Dr Helmut Fischer put it, ‘Documentary makers might have ambitions to tell the “truth” and show only “facts” but there is no such thing as a non-fiction film. That’s because, as soon as you record an incident on camera, you are altering its reality in a fundamental way’. Secondly, even supporters of documentaries could not agree on a precise definition, which did little to improve the reputation of the genre. Lastly, there were also concerns about the ethics of filming subjects without their consent, which is a necessity in many documentary films.
B None of this prevented documentaries from being produced, though exactly when the process started is open to question. It is often claimed that Nanook of the North was the first documentary. Made by the American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty in 1922, the film depicts the hard, sometimes heroic lives of native American peoples in the Canadian Arctic. Nanook of the North is said to have set off a trend that continued though the 1920s with the films of Dziga Vertov in the Soviet Union and works by other filmmakers around the world. However, that 1922 starting point has been disputed by supporters of an earlier date. Among this group is film historian Anthony Berwick, who argues that the genre can be traced back as early as 1895, when similar films started to appear, including newsreels, scientific films and accounts of journeys of exploration.
C In the years following 1922, one particular style of documentary started to appear. These films adopted a serious tone while depicting the lives of actual people. Cameras were mounted on tripods and subjects rehearsed and repeated activities for the purposes of the film. British filmmaker John Grierson was an important member of this group. Grierson’s career lasted nearly 40 years, beginning with Drifters (1929) and culminating with I Remember, I Remember (1968). However, by the 1960s Grierson’s style of film was being rejected by the Direct Cinema movement, which wanted to produce more natural and authentic films: cameras were hand-held; no additional lighting or sound was used; and the subjects did not rehearse. According to film writer Paula Murphy, the principles and methods of Direct Cinema brought documentaries to the attention of universities and film historians as never before. Documentaries started to be recognized as a distinct genre worthy of serious scholarly analysis.
D Starting in the 1980s, the widespread availability of first video and then digital cameras transformed filmmaking. The flexibility and low cost of these devices meant that anyone could now be a filmmaker. Amateurs working from home could compete with professionals in ways never possible before. The appearance of online film-sharing platforms in the early 2000s only increased the new possibilities for amateur documentaries were being made, perhaps the most popular documentary of 2006 was still the professionally made An Inconvenient Truth. New cameras and digital platforms revolutionised the making of films. But as critic Maria Fiala has pointed out, ‘ The arguments sometimes put forward that these innovations immediately transformed what the public expected to see in a documentary isn’t entirely accurate.’
E However, a new generation of documentary filmmakers then emerged, and with them came a new philosophy of the genre. These filmmakers moved away from highlighting political themes or urgent social issues. Instead the focus moved inwards, exploring personal lives, relationships and emotions. It could be argued that Catfish (2010) was a perfect example of this new trend. The film chronicles the everyday lives and interactions of the social media generation and was both a commercial and critical success. Filmmaker Josh Camberwell maintains that Catfish embodies a new realization that documentaries are inherently subjective and that this should be celebrated. Says Camberwell, ‘It is a requirement for documentary makers to express a particular viewpoint and give personal responses to the material they are recording.’
F The popularity and variety of documentaries today is illustrated by the large number of film festivals focusing on the genre around the world. The biggest of all must be Hot Docs Festival in Canada, which over the years has showcased hundreds of documentaries from more than 50 different countries Even older is the Hamburg International Short Film Festival. As its name suggests, Hamburg specializes in short films, but one category takes this to its limits – entries may not exceed three minutes in duration. The Short and Sweet Festival is a slightly smaller event held in Utah, USA. The small size of the festival means that for first timers this is the ideal venue to try to get some recognition for their films. Then there is the Atlanta Shortsfest, which is a great event for a wide variety of filmmakers. Atlanta welcomes all established types of documentaries and recognises the growing popularity of animations, with a category specifically for films of this type. These are just a few of the scores of film festivals on offer, and there are more being established every year. All in all, it has never been easier for documentary makers to get their films in front of an audience .
When viewed in the wild, jellyfish are perhaps the most graceful and vividly coloured of all sea creatures. But few people have seen a jellyfish living in its natural habitat. Instead, they might see a dead and shapeless specimen lying on the beach, or perhaps receive a painful sting while swimming, so it is inevitable that jellyfish are often considered ugly and possibly dangerous. This misunderstanding can be partly traced back to the 20th century, when the use of massive nets and mechanical winches often damaged the delicate jellyfish that scientists managed to recover. As a result, disappointingly little research was carried out into jellyfish, as marine biologists took the easy option and focused on physically stronger species such as fish, crabs and shrimp. Fortunately, however, new techniques are now being developed. For example, scientists have discovered that sound bounces harmlessly off jellyfish, so in the Arctic and Norway researchers are using sonar to monitor jellyfish beneath the ocean’s surface. This, together with aeroplane surveys, satellite imagery and underwater cameras, has provided a wealth of new information in recent years.
Scientists know believe that in shallow water alone there are at least 38 million tonnes of jellyfish and these creatures inhabit every type of marine habitat, including deep water. Furthermore, jellyfish were once regarded as relatively solitary, but this is another area where science has evolved. Dr Karen Hansen was the first to suggest that jellyfish are in fact the centre of entire ecosystems, as shrimp, lobster, and fish shelter and feed among their tentacles. This proposition has subsequently been conclusively proven by independent studies. DNA sequencing and isotope analysis have provided further insights, including the identification of numerous additional species of jellyfish unknown to science only a few years ago.
This brings us to the issue of climate change. Research studies around the world have recorded a massive growth in jellyfish populations in recent years and some scientists have linked this to climate change. However, while this may be credible, it cannot be established with certainty as other factors might be involved. Related to this was the longstanding academic belief that jellyfish had no predators and therefore there was no natural process to limit their numbers. However, observations made by Paul Dewar and his team showed that this was incorrect. As a result, the scientific community now recognises that species including sharks, tuna, swordfish and some salmon all prey on jellyfish.
It is still widely assumed that jellyfish are among the simplest lifeforms, as they no brain or central nervous system. While this is true, we now know they possess senses that allow them to see, feel and interact with their environment on subtle ways. What is more, analysis of so-called ‘upside-down jellyfish’ shows that they shut down their bodies and rest in much the same way that humans do at night, something once widely believed to be impossible for jellyfish. Furthermore, far from ‘floating’ in the water as they are still sometimes thought to do, analysis has shown jellyfish to be the most economical swimmers in the animal kingdom. In short, scientific progress in recent years has shown that many of our established beliefs about jellyfish were inaccurate. Jellyfish, though, are not harmless. Their sting can cause a serious allergic reaction in some people and large outbreaks of them – known as ‘blooms’ – can damage tourist businesses, break fishing nets, overwhelm fish farms and block industrial cooling pipes. On the other hand, jellyfish are a source of medical collagen used in surgery and wound dressings. In addition, a particular protein taken from jellyfish has been used in over 30,000 scientific studies of serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Thus, our relationship with jellyfish is complex as there are a range of conflicting factors to consider.
Jellyfish have existed more or less unchanged for at least 500 million years. Scientists recognise that over the planet’s history there have been three major extinction events connected with changing environmental conditions. Together, these destroyed 99% of all life, but jellyfish lived through all three. Research in the Mediterranean Sea has now shown, remarkably, that in old age and on the point of death, certain jellyfish are able to revert to an earlier physical state, leading to the assertion that they are immortal. While this may not technically be true, it is certainly an extraordinary discovery. What is more, the oceans today contain 30% more poisonous acid than they did 100 years ago, causing problems for numerous species, but not jellyfish, which may even thrive in more acidic waters. Jellyfish throughout their long history have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient.
Studies of jellyfish in class know as scyphozoa have shown a life cycle of three distinct phases. First, thousands of babies known as planulae are released. Them, after a few days the planulae develop into polyps – stationary lifeforms that feed off floating particles. Finally, these are transformed into something that looks like a stack of pancakes, each of which is a tiny jellyfish. It is now understood that all species of jellyfish go through similarly distinct stages of life. This is further evidence of just how sophisticated and unusual these lifeforms are.
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