Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture of Natural History Museums

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9780195130508: Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture of Natural History Museums
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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 more going 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 that these 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 nurture them).
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 going on backstage--is just as fascinating as the exhibits on display.

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Review:

Science museums can be illuminating, exciting, and disturbing--just like the collectors that make them possible. Scholar Stephen T. Asma turned his professional curiosity about preserving bodies into an engrossing, wide-ranging exploration of the nature of these places and their curators. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums brings a refreshing vitality to a subject usually thought boring, if not morbid. Asma's writing ranges from expositive to chatty, and it occasionally feels like a travelogue or memoir, as he investigates the American Museum of Natural History, the Galerie d'anatomie comparée, and other collections in the U.S. and Europe. This informality keeps the reader engaged throughout. Referring to the process of skeletonizing specimens--while maintaining his hold on all but the most sensitive--he writes:

I stepped into the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine.... Inside each tank were thousands of dermestid beetles, otherwise known as flesh-eating beetles, blissfully chewing the meaty chunks and strands off the bones. Each bug was no bigger than a watermelon seed, but en masse they could strip a skeleton clean in two short days.

To Asma's credit, the bulk of the text is less a gross-out fest than a consideration of the hard, sometimes obsessive work of the men and women behind the displays. He examines the role of museums and collectors in the great evolutionary debates of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the future of these institutions as they come more and more to depend on corporate largesse. Equally enlightening and entertaining, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads is a perfectly exhibited specimen. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:


Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Columbia College, in Chicago. He has written articles on a broad range of topics that bridge the humanities and sciences, including pieces in Chronicle of Higher Education and The Humanist, and he is a regular contributor to Skeptic Magazine. The author of the bestselling Buddha for Beginners, he lives in Chicago.

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