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Dr. Edward Sylvester Morse: Marine Biologist, Collector, and Scholar

Updated: Feb 2

By Kayla Cazes, Librarian/Reference Archivist

Yoshu Chikanobu (1838 - 1912, Japanese), Tokyo Aristocratic School Picture of Banquet of Gakushu, 1877, Woodblock print, 36 x 72 cm, ChY.04.09 a-c

Many may not know, but here at the Whyte Museum, we have a rich and diverse Japanese collection of objects and art. In January 2018, Dr. Gain Chin, an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Regina, provided a scholarly assessment of our Japanese collection. She was able to add depth and clarity about the cultural significance and value of our collection. How you may ask, did we acquire such objects? Come with us on a journey of the man known as Dr. Edward Sylvester Morse.

Lotus Flowers in Shiba Park, [ca. 1908 - 192-], Mary Schäffer fonds (V527/PS/1/874)

Morse specialized in the study of malacology, which focuses on mollusca. Mollusca includes snails, slugs, clams, octopus, squid, and so on. As a marine biologist he focused heavily on this classification of invertebrates. In 1870, he published a book that reclassified braciopods as worms, rather than mollusks. In 1877, Morse went in search of coastal braciopods in Japan. This short stay turned into a three year adventure for Morse. During this time he fell in love with the culture and people of Japan. He would return to Japan in 1882 and begin to amass a large collection of objects.

[Catharine Robb (Whyte) with Edward Morse], n.d., Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/IV/A/PA-181)

So, what is the connection to the Whyte Museum? Morse was Catharine Robb Whyte's maternal grandfather. Through her personal letters and diary entries, we can see her immense fondness for him.

Catharine described the collecting tendencies of her grandfather in a diary entry,

"Grandpa never threw anything away, even letters from Mother which just say, "Will meet you Saturday," . . . I cleaned out the attic. We found old hats, shoes, boots, masks, pictures, coffee pots, maps, an old warming pan, fishing rods, boxes, shells, stones, tiles, trunks, bags, screens . . . pottery, old bottles, kettles, an old sea chest . . . a skeleton of a monkey, the [hyoid] bone of a 'Peruvian mummy' and a 'section of the human soul' in one drawer in the desk."

Catharine Robb Whyte, March 31, 1926

[Dr. Morse's House], Baldwin Coolidge Phot., Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/IV/A/PA-172)

Between the years 1890 and 1892, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts purchased thousands of ceramic objects from Dr. Morse. The Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts acquired every day material objects.

From April to October 2018, we showcased our collection in an exhibition, From Morse to Whyte: A Dynastic Bequest of Japanese Treasures. Below is a selection of Japanese objects and art that were collected by Morse.

Maker Unknown, Doll, 1870 - 1890, Wood, fibre, plaster, 25 x 10cm, 108.05.0060

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847 - 1915, Japanese), Snow Scene in Oume, Hunabiki-Doli, Woodblock print, 25 x 37 cm, KiY.04.02

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847 - 1915, Japanese), Night Rain at Yanagihara, 1882, Woodblock print, 25 x 37 cm, KiY.04.03

Odo Kokusei, Snow in the Dawn, Tale of Prince Genji, 1878, Woodblock print, KkO.04.01 a-c

Utagawa Yoshitora (1850 - 1880, Japanese), Twelve Symphonies, 1853, Woodblock print, 37 x 74 cm, MoS.04.01 a-c

Tsukioka Kōgyo (1867 - 1900, Japanese), Untitled [Six Fireflies], 1910, Woodblock, KoR.04.03

Maker Unknown, Miniature China Shop, 1870 - 1890, Wood, ceramic, fibre, 25 x 21 x 34 cm, 105.02.0118

Ohara Koson (1877 - 1945, Japanese), Sparrow on Plum Branch, 1910, Woodblock print, 24 x 25 cm, OhK.04.02


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