Friday, June 8, 2007

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

Title: Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001)

The Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the AMNH

Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities at Columbia College, Chicago, and one of those academics with a neat website. Resume lists both "areas of specialization" ("Eastern Philosophy [esp. Buddhism], Philosophy and History of Science [Life Sciences], Museum Studies, Interdisciplinary Humanities") and "areas of competence" ("Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Cultural Studies Theory, History of Philosophy [Ancient & Modern]"). Previous book was called Buddha for Beginners; came out with what looks like a popular book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Philosophical Dispatches From the Tattered Land of the Buddha, in 2005; apparently he's publishing a history of monsters in 2008 (I better hurry up with my cryptozoology idea...)

Part of the problem with this book is that the argument isn't really clear. One portion of that confusion comes from the fact that the book is attempting to reach a non-academic audience; part of it comes from the fact that this is an exploration of a subject matter somewhat outside of Asma's main expertise. He writes in the introduction that he hopes museum-goers will "not be able to look at exhibits the same way again" after reading the book, and that "once you've been behind the scenes to witness the backstage drama that is present in all natural history museums, and once you've learned that some of the historical and intellectual background of specimen collecting and exhibit creation, you'll find, I hope, every subsequent exhibit encounter to be more enlightening and more enjoyable" (xii). This is less an argument than, well, a goal, I guess? Have I become so used to reading scholarly writing that any book that doesn't start a graf "This book seeks to argue" the first chapter somewhere has lost me?

Chapter 1: Flesh-eating Beetles and the Secret Art of Taxidermy: Some discussion of Freud and Baudrillard on collecting. A small trip behind-the-scenes at the Field Museum to talk about wet-prep versus taxidermic preparations. Here is where the dermestid beetles make their appearance (these curator's-little-helpers eat flesh off the bones of soon-to-be skeletal specimens).

Chapter 2: Peter the Great's Mysterious Jars: How to Pickle a Human Head and Other Great Achievements of the Scientific Revolution: A couple good stories about Peter the Great's jars of heads (is this where "Surviving the Game" got the idea?) A visit to the Hunterian museum in London, and some short history of British collector and naturalist John Hunter (1728-1793). Other discussions of taxidermic techniques.

The Hunterian museum, before the wars.

Chapter 3: Taxonomic Intoxication, Part 1: Visualizing the Invisible
: Here Asma begins an extended discussion of debates between Enlightenment scientists over taxonomy. This doesn't seem to have all that much to do with museums, except for how taxonomy influences the order in which museums are set up. Of course, I always like a nice detour through stories of eighteenth century naturalists, but I was left wondering what was going on.

Albrecht Durer's 1515 drawing of a rhino. Asma uses this to make a point about how mistakes got transmitted in the age before widespread knowledge of natural history; subsequent drawings of rhinos often gave them a second horn between the shoulders, like Durer's, where a real-life rhino has none.

Chapter 4: Taxonomic Intoxication, Part II: In Search of the Engine Room: More of the same: a history-of-science take on how taxonomy dealt with questions of the Designer. Lamarck, Linnaeus, Cuvier, etc. Short visits to Cuvierian armoires.

Chapter 5: Exhibiting Evolution: Diversity, Order, and the Construction of Nature
: How have museums constructed evolutionary ideas for viewers? Here Asma writes that he plans to look at four particular museums to make his argument about national tendencies to place rhetorical emphasis on different strains of evolutionary thought. I can't really get out of this anything specific about American ideas of evolution, other than the fact that more Americans seem to question it, which I already knew. Asma says French museums care about beauty while American museums care about order, but I kind of don't believe this. The main debate Asma points to here is whether natural transformation is a bigger "engine" of evolution, or whether mutation is, which he kind of frames as a national debate (English vs. French), but kind of not.

Chapter 6: Evolution and the Roulette Wheel: A Chance Cosmos Rattles Some Bones
: Ah! A return to a specific exhibit, at the Field Museum, that uses gambling metaphor to describe the evolutionary process, and a letter from a sort-of religious visitor who was upset at that choice. Then, a loooong digression into the social meaning of evolutionary thought, and a short interview with another curator at the Field, who talks about exhibit design. I wanted way more of this.

Chapter 7: Drama in Diorama: The Confederation of Art and Science:
A bit of discussion about the importance of the visual in teaching, and then a discussion of the ways in which art and science used to overlap (see Akeley) and don't anymore. Digression into stories of medical illustration from back in the eighteenth C., mostly focusing on Jan Van Rymsdyk (see one of his drawings of a gravid uterus, below). Discussion of the use of humor in museum displays. All in all, this chapter seemed to focus way more on the actual museums than the previous chapters.

Reviews: In Isis, Keith R. Benson wrote, rather crankily, "Unfortunately, Asma does not deliver on his introductory promises" to talk about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the museum (a quibble with which I agree), but then goes on:
"To be sure, there are references to workers 'behind the scenes' and allusions to interesting specimens in many of the museums he has visited. But these subjects are never systematically or analytically treated. Moreover, there is little evidence that the author is thoroughly aware of the literature on museums or of the collecting cultures that contributed to their construction and elaboration. A cursory investigation of the literature cited reveals a shocking neglect of most foundational work, including that by the authors mentioned in the first paragraph of this review."

Sounds a bit like a bitter specialist annoyed with a relative layperson treading on his terrain, but I do have to agree that the book felt unsystematic and poorly planned. (Benson also points out that the photographs are atrocious, which is true.)

Meanwhile, in Reviews in American History, Steven Conn wrote that the book was saddled with confusing variations in tone, but praises its philosophical sections for their writing acumen. Conn points out that the observations Asma makes in the museums he covers are just the observations of a perceptive viewer; not much institutional history fleshes the picture out for the reader. Moreover, Conn writes, "Asma is not a historian," and thus the historical context of the museums in question is not clear (and why did he even pick the museums that he picked?) Conn delivers the final blow by calling Stuffed Animals itself a piece of "edutainment".

New words: "acromegaly" ("a disease characterized by hypertrophy and enlargement of the extremities"); "cladistic" ("of or pertaining to the study of clades"; a "clade" is a group of organisms evolved from a single ancestor); "seraglio" ("enclosure, place of confinement"; "the inmates of the harem; a polygamous household"); "furcula" ("a forked bone below the neck of a bird, consisting of the two clavicles and an inter-clavicle; the merry-thought or wish-bone"); "homology" ("sameness of relation, correspondence"); "prosopagnosia" ("an inability to recognize a face as that of any particular person"); "allopatric" ("applied to organisms that occupy different geographical areas"); "otiose" ("having no practical function; redundant; superfluous").

Leads to follow up on:
The Field Museum's "suitcase dioramas" for education - program begun in 1911 (see reference, Field Museum and the Child [Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1928]).

Books to follow up on: Primary: Vinson Brown, Build Your Own Nature Museum (For Study and Pleasure) (1984); SH Daukes, The Medical Museum (1929); William T. Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913) (Project Gutenberg link); Jack Kevorkian, The Story of Dissection (1959); Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (1963); CP Snow, The Two Cultures (1959).

Secondary: Michael Ames, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes (1992); Victoria Alexander, Museums and Money: The Impact of Funding on Exhibitions, Scholarships, and Management (1996);
John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, eds, The Cultures of Collecting (1994); Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature (1994); Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (1992); Susan Pearce, Museums, Objects, and Collections: A Cultural Study (1992); Douglas Preston, Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History (1986).

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