Stephen T. Asma: Stuffed Animals And Pickled Heads: The Culture And Evolution Of Natural History Museums

Stephen T. Asma: Stuffed Animals And Pickled Heads: The Culture And Evolution Of Natural History Museums

The bygone days of radical scientists with "curiosity cabinets" and the modern era of metropolitan science museums with staffs of meticulous, scrupulous researchers have more similarities than the latter may care to admit. In both cases, the preservation and presentation of nature sends subtle messages about what humankind has gleaned from studying biology. Professor and professional inquisitor Stephen T. Asma sets about decoding those messages in Stuffed Animals And Pickled Heads. Three-quarters scholarly and one-quarter personal, Asma's collection of observations and documentation covers his trip across America and Europe, in search of nuts-and-bolts facts on how to stuff and mount a human being. The cheeky question of "how" develops into a more profound question of "why," which leads Asma to the Royal College Of Surgeons in London, home of museology's ground zero: the collection of 18th-century scientist John Hunter. The Hunterian Museum contains shelf upon shelf of pickle jars, each filled with a homemade alcohol solution and some sort of animal oddity (many of which the scientist "engineered" himself through cross-breeding and judicious grafting). Charles Darwin reportedly collected his thoughts while studying Hunter's mutants, and Darwin's subsequent musings sparked a revolution in the museum industry. The majority of Asma's book is dedicated to showing how natural-history museums themselves mutated from borderline freak shows into what they are today: essentially, elaborate dramatizations of the theory of evolution. Aside from two long, fairly dry chapters on the development of taxonomy, Stuffed makes for provocative reading. Of particular interest is the idea that exhibitors have a history of building their biases and prejudices into their exhibits, whether in anthropological examinations that place Caucasians above all other races, or in animal-habitat dioramas that reconfigure woodland creatures into happy families. Asma doesn't mock this trait, nor does he wring his hands over the trend toward de-emphasizing serious science in favor of animatronic dinosaurs. Instead, he plays the advocate, arguing that if natural-history museums can distort the truth about animal life, they can surely use that power to explicate the need for environmental activism, or even just to continue fighting for a clearer public understanding of what Darwin's theories really mean.

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