Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution 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.
"Rich in detail, lucid explanation, telling anecdotes, and fascinating characters.... Asma has rendered a fascinating and credible account of how natural history museums are conceived and presented. It's the kind of book that will not only engage a wide and diverse readership, but it should, best of all, send them flocking to see how we look at nature and ourselves in those fabulous legacies of the curiosity cabinet."—The Boston Herald.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), our author tells us, wished that he could exhibit human bodies in his natural history museum. He was convinced that if people could glimpse the corpses of, say, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, they might perceive the lofty characters that once inhabited them. Unfortunately for Peale, preservation techniques had not advanced sufficiently to pickle his famous friends. Fortunately for us, Dr. Stephen Asma has spent several years touring natural history and ruminating about what it means. Like the exhibits of Peale's Museum, what he finds is almost always unexpected.
From the Publisher
"In Stuffed Animals, the natural history museum is a dimly lit stage for scientific dreams. Inside its cabinet of wonder, the mysteries of the natural world are laid bare and the rupture between the scientific and the sublime is momentarily healed."—Voice Literary Supplement

"Rich in detail, lucid explanation, telling anecdotes, and fascinating characters.... Asma has rendered a fascinating and credible account of how natural history museums are conceived and presented. It's the kind of book that will not only engage a wide and diverse readership, but it should, best of all, send them flocking to see how we look at nature and ourselves in those fabulous legacies of the curiosity cabinet."—Boston Herald

"Asma has already established himself as one of the most creative minds working in cultural history and the history of science. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads is an incredibly stimulating discussion of the role of natural history museums in culture and society. It should be read by all, both practicing scientists and philosophers, and the broadly curious general reader."—Michael Ruse, author of The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw

"Strap yourself into your seat and prepare for a thrilling ride back into history and natural history through Stephen Asma's time machine—two hundred years back into the history of natural history museums, and two million years back into natural history itself. The weird and the wonderful are on display and visually striking, as Asma traces our journey to understand our origins and evolution, and how we have struggled mightily to convey millions of years of time and change to a species whose chronology is set in decades. A gripping tale with great illustrations that are absolutely necessary—for we are the most visual of all the primates, and there is no greater theatre than evolution."—Michael Shermer, author of The Borderlands of Science

historyh Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads surveys the presence and evolution of natural history museums around the world interviewing curators, scientists and exhibit designers and providing many observations of the history of these museums and how their contents and approaches have evolved. The result is an excellent and intriguing survey of the evolution of natural history collections."—The Bookwatch

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195163360
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 827,500
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Flesh-eating Beetles and the Secret Art of Taxidermy 3
Ch. 2 Peter the Great's Mysterious Jars: How to Pickle a Human Head and Other Great Achievements of the Scientific Revolution 47
Ch. 3 Taxonomic Intoxication, Part I: Visualizing the Invisible 77
Ch. 4 Taxonomic Intoxication, Part II: In Search of the Engine Room 114
Ch. 5 Exhibiting Evolution: Diversity, Order, and the Construction of Nature 154
Ch. 6 Evolution and the Roulette Wheel: A Chance Cosmos Rattles Some Bones 202
Ch. 7 Drama in Diorama: The Confederation of Art and Science 240
Notes and Further Reading 277
Index 289
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