The University of Nottingham’s not so dusty digitised collections

Bear plunging into the sea, from Ross's 'Voyage of discovery', 1819
Bear plunging into the sea, from Ross’s ‘Voyage of discovery’, 1819

The University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and and Special Collections have digitised parts of their collections, including a selection of beautiful, mostly 19th century natural history images and documents. You can see the full collection here, but I thought I’d pick out a few of my favourites from the collection.

I particularly like these images of polar bears, or white bears as they seem to have been called at the time. I like them partly because I’m fascinated by anything to do with polar exploration (one of my secret heroes is Ernest Shackleton), but also because I’ve been thinking about polar bears a lot since watching the ‘Ice Worlds’ episode of Planet Earth. I’m working my way through the series at the moment and I’d definitely recommend it if you haven’t seen it already – although I have to admit David Attenborough’s voice is so soothing I’ve fallen asleep a few times mid-episode.

Polar bear, and sledge dog from Ross's 'Voyage of discovery', 1819
Polar bear, and sledge dog from Ross’s ‘Voyage of discovery’, 1819

The bits I have seen have been a mixture of awe-inspiring, joyful and sad. It’s hard not to go¬†aaaw when they show bear cubs prancing around or chicks taking their first flying lesson. It’s also equally hard not to feel saddened when the cubs or chicks get eaten by larger animals. Although it always seems less heart-breaking if the animal being eaten isn’t cute and furry, which has got me thinking a lot about how our attitudes towards animals differ depending on their appearance – but that’s a whole other blog post!

The ‘Ice Worlds’ episode was a particularly heart-wrenching one. It featured a polar bear that had been forced by the melting summer ice to take to the sea in search of food. It comes upon a herd of walruses and desperately attempts to capture one. However, the walruses manage to get away and in the process injure the polar bear with their tusks. Exhausted and hungry, the bear curls up on the ground and Attenborough announces that it will not survive. I couldn’t help but wonder if his words weren’t a glimpse into the future of the species.

Polar bear, from Webber's 'Illustrations to Cook's voyage' c.1784
Polar bear, from Webber’s ‘Illustrations to Cook’s voyage’ c.1784


  1. These images are wonderful. And, I am glad to hear someone besides myself falls asleep during those planet earth episodes – someday I hope it infiltrates my dreams and I find myself in the arctic (although maybe a pristine and not melting one).

    1. They are lovely, glad you enjoyed them. I quite like your idea, I wouldn’t mind dreaming myself into some of the beautiful landscapes Planet Earth explores!

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