Over the weekend I finally finished Stephen Asma’s interesting book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads which appears to be about the history of natural history museums but has far more to do with the evolving philosophy and science and how that philosophy is presented to the public. The book has a great introductory hook; brief tales of giants, deformities, and even unethical scientists grab your attention at the start. As interesting as these initial cases are, however, they are primarily footnotes to the larger theme of the book, and I’m sorry to say that in places the text drags a bit. While tales of some truly mad scientists help to pick things up a bit, Asma jumps around through history, sometimes making it difficult to keep track of just who is influencing what and when; a more chronologically based study would have cleared things up a bit.
Also, at first the book seems like it is going to be about the way in which animals were collected, preserved, lost, found, destroyed, refurbished, etc. leading to the museums of today, but as I said before this is more of a subplot and a lot of the author’s initial curiosities on this subject (as well as the reader’s) never really come to fruition. Case in point, Asma is initially interested in a boy with a digit deformity (it appears as if he has claws for hands and feet) and how this person went from being a live display to a worker at the museum in lean times to a stuffed display; the issue is never really resolved (although the macabre details of preserving a human for display would surely scare some readers off).
While the book certainly is not what I had hoped it would be, this is not to say it is not without virtue or value. The philosophical discussions Asma gets into about Cuvier’s reluctance to put invertebrates and vertebrates in the same display proves to be quite illuminating, as well as some of his discussions with current museum staff about the gravitation towards edu-tainment. Indeed, the latter chapters of the book, looking at how modern museums are organized, are among the strongest, although Asma does not seem overly optimistic that museums will be able to support themselves without kowtowing to big business.
One interesting point he brought up was the more “traditional” and Victorian type of museum that the American Museum of Natural History seems to be. Although not explicitly mentioned in the book, Asma’s writing made me realize how the AMNH is somewhat partitioned off in the tradition of Cuvier, each group of animals having their own space without much integration. There’s a hall of Asian Mammals, African Mammals, Saurischian Dinosaurs, Ornithischian Dinosaurs, Primates, North American Mammals, etc.; there is far less integration than in other museums. While the Hall of Vertebrate Origins partially rectifies this problem, the hall is organized by order and cladistics, which I feel isn’t as obvious to the casual observer (to many, it is likely just a supplementary hall that also has some fossils in it). There isn’t much sense of ecology or integrated nature, but rather of each group having their own privileged existence, but I realize that changing this would require hundreds of millions of dollars and the closing of the museum of who knows how many years; we are left with an older system in which all the organisms have their own place, it seems.
To sum up, the middle of the book is sometimes a little difficult to get through, but it is very useful for this fact if nothing else; it makes the reader realize that science and art are integrated in museums, and that science is not always 100% objective when it comes to disseminating information to the public. Indeed, you could say Asma did achieve his goal with me, as I will never be able to look at a museum the same way ever again.