Cover image for Stuffed animals & pickled heads : the culture and evolution of natural history museums
Stuffed animals & pickled heads : the culture and evolution of natural history museums
Asma, Stephen T.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xv, 302 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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QH70.A1 A75 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QH70.A1 A75 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The natural history museum is a place where the line between "high" and "low" culture effectively vanishes--where our awe of nature, our taste for the bizarre, and our thirst for knowledge all blend happily together. But as Stephen Asma shows in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, there is moregoing on in these great institutions than just smart fun. Asma takes us on a wide-ranging tour of natural history museums in New York and Chicago, London and Paris, interviewing curators, scientists, and exhibit designers, and providing a wealth of fascinating observations. We learn how the first museums were little more than high-toned side shows,with such garish exhibits as the pickled head of Peter the Great's lover. In contrast, today's museums are hot-beds of serious science, funding major research in such fields as anthropology and archaeology. Asma also points out that these museums actively shape our perception of nature, and thatthese efforts are swayed as much by politics as by science. In countless exhibits, for instance, the idea of the traditional nuclear family is evident in displays of everything from extinct animals to grizzly bears (in nature, alas, the male bear is more likely to devour its young than to nurturethem). Where else but at a natural history museum could you find a T. rex, a high-tech planetarium, a Native American totem pole, and flesh-eating beetles--all under one roof. And in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, Stephen Asma reveals that what we don't see--the scientific research that is goingon backstage--is just as fascinating as the exhibits on display.

Author Notes

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Columbia College in Chicago.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Asma, a philosophy professor, takes the reader on a journey through the history and philosophical underpinnings of the natural history museum. Talking with curators, exhibit designers, and scientists from museums in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago (homes of the world's major natural history museums), the author goes behind the scenes to discuss not only how objects are displayed but also why they were chosen. The natural history museum started as a gathering of natural oddities. Early museums often emphasized the macabre, but the author points out that much learning was taking place (almost despite themselves) among museum goers. As he delves into the nuts and bolts of exhibition, specimen preparation, and preservation, Asma shows us flesh-eating beetles (for cleaning bones), the "wet method" of preservation (literally pickling), the artistry of taxidermy, and the preparation of the world's most famous dinosaur fossil. Woven into this museum travelogue are quotes from museum personnel explaining the philosophy behind the writing of signage, the juxtaposition of exhibits, and the presentation of a story line. --Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

Artfully posed human skeletons and "monster" fetuses in jars are the stuff of Stephen T. Asma's fascinating Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. A professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities at Chicago's Columbia College, Asma (Buddha for Beginners) dissects and catalogues his extensive research in this rigorous, entertaining work of cultural criticism. He investigates the history of "acceptable" scientific practice and affords philosophical insight into the scientific and human impulse to categorize: "To have a concept... is to have its negation already in tow.... There is a class of things called `dog,' and there is a class of things (quite substantial, in fact) that are `not-dog.'... Language and thought cannot really function without this most basic tool for carving up reality." Photos and illus. ( Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Do natural history museum visitors ever wonder how exhibits come to be or what, if any, history there may be to the presentation of the exhibits? Asma, a philosophy professor, answers these questions and more. He succeeds admirably in providing a "decoder device that readers can draw upon for future museum visits." Examining seven natural history museums in the United States and Europe, Asma provides a history of wet and dry specimens and taxidermy, how and why collections were accumulated, how taxonomy evolved, and how collections changed over time. The last half of the book explores how evolution and Darwin have influenced natural history collections, "dissects" exhibits at several museums, and, most fascinatingly, discusses how the visual arts are employed both consciously and unconsciously in the creation of natural history displays. For all medium and large collections and especially for history of science collections. Michael D. Cramer, Raleigh Research Triangle Park, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Chapter 1 Flesh-eating Beetles and the Secret Art of Taxidermyp. 3
Chapter 2 Peter the Great's Mysterious Fars: How to Pickle a Human Head and Other Great Achievements of the Scientific Revolutionp. 47
Chapter 3 Taxonomic Intoxication, Part I: Visualizing the Invisiblep. 77
Chapter 4 Taxonomic Intoxication, Part II: In Search of the Engine Roomp. 114
Chapter 5 Exhibiting Evolution: Diversity, Order, and the Construction of Naturep. 154
Chapter 6 Evolution and the Roulette Wheel: A Chance Cosmos Rattles Some Bonesp. 202
Chapter 7 Drama in Diorama: The Confederation of Art and Sciencep. 240
Notes and Further Readingp. 277
Indexp. 289