Exhibition causes quite a buzz!


Fiona Melhuish (UMASCS Librarian) writes about our exhibition on the fascinating Cowan Bee Collection:

Last year, The MERL acquired the Cowan Bee Collection, a library of 1,800 volumes of books, pamphlets and journals relating to bees and beekeeping, which has been described as the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. The items date from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and were owned by Thomas William Cowan (1840–1926), a co-founder and president of the British Beekeepers Association.

Frontispiece from ‘The management of bees’ by Samuel Bagster, (1834). COWAN BEE COLLECTION–0030

We were also very fortunate to be awarded funding from The Eva Crane Trust to catalogue the Cowan Bee Collection, and we are making excellent progress with this to make the collection accessible to researchers and other interest groups. We hope that improved access will help to promote the use of the collection in historical bee research, and also potentially open up new research avenues into the history of bees and beekeeping.

In addition to this project, we are also provided visitors with the opportunity to view some of the treasures from this fascinating collection through an exhibition in our staircase hall.

The Cowan library was donated by Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), and complements our Bee Collection, which includes the books of William Charles Cotton (1813 – 1879) and H. Malcolm Fraser (1874 – 1970). Material relating to bees can also be found in the Cole Library of early medicine and zoology, and the library and object collections of The Museum of English Rural Life. The acquisition of the Cowan library has made our bee collection one of the largest in the UK, and a centre for historical material on bees and apiculture in the academic library sector.

Cover design for ‘A.B.C. i birogt’ by R. Lilleholt, (1911) COWAN BEE COLLECTION

The exhibition included some of Cowan’s own publications, alongside some of the many foreign language titles in the collection. Cowan was a great traveller and a skilled linguist, and was well-known and admired by beekeepers and writers on bees around the world. The wide range of foreign language material makes the Cowan collection particularly unique and interesting, with publications from France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, America, Poland and Russia, many of which are very rare and not found in other academic libraries or in the British Library.

Bees have been a source of fascination and inspiration to writers for centuries, and alongside practical manuals, guides and other writings in the Cowan Bee Collection, there are also a selection of stories and poetical works concerning bees. We were keen to emphasise this aspect in the exhibition, as, in addition to the scientific and practical beekeeping element, there is a wealth of material with literary, sociological and historical interest as well. In keeping with this, we are very pleased to include the poet Jack Thacker’s poem Skep which was inspired by objects and archives which Jack viewed during his residency at The MERL from October 2017 to March 2018.

The display included a selection of the many important works on bees and beekeeping from the history of bee literature, including an early edition of The feminine monarchie by Charles Butler, one of the greatest books on bees and bee science, and among the first to state that the leader bee was female and the drones were male. Butler also wrote a book on music, and attempted to describe the piping of the queen bee at swarming time in musical notation. This was later developed into Melissomelos, a four-part madrigal, printed inversely on the pages so that the singers could share the book and read and sing their parts.

Illustration from Charles Butler’s famous book ‘Monarchia fœminina’, (1673). COWAN BEE COLLECTION–0153

Also on display is a copy of Francesco Clerici’s atlas L’ape (1875), with its exquisite chromolithographic plates, and an early edition of Thomas Hyll’s treatise on bees, first published in 1568 and thought to be the first British book on bees. We are also delighted to show some bee-related items from The MERL object collections alongside the Cowan books, including a skep hive, a bee smoker and a stoneware honey pot made by the Leach Pottery.

The exhibition was curated by Fiona Melhuish and Claudia Ricci (Cowan Bee Project Cataloguer). It ran in the staircase hall at The MERL from 6 November 2019 – 31 January 2020.

The MERL shop has always been a proud supplier of Meadow Honey Farm products, and they have proved very popular over the past three years.  Meadow Honey Farm offer pollination services, beekeeping courses and a range of hive products. We think you will be amazed at the range of products that they can produce from a beehive.

At The MERL, we stock their bee-licious honey, some tasty honey foods, beautiful beeswax candles and a skincare range that will have your skin glowing.

Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Use the form below to select the newsletters you would like to receive!

Share This Post :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Visit us

    Visit Us

    The Museum is now fully open, following a major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

    Free Admission

    The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road


    RG1 5EX

    Plan my visit