Read Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums by Stephen T. Asma Online


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 widThe 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....

Title : Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780195163360
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 320 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

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

  • Emily
    2019-04-25 20:43

    If I have ever read a book that struck such an elegant balance between philosophical inquiry and sordid fascination with the grotesque as Stephen Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, I certainly don't remember it. Asma's exploration of the evolution of modern-day natural history museums, from their primitive ancestors the medieval bestiaries, through Renaissance curiosity cabinets and the private, Enlightenment-era collections of proto-scientists, is perceptive and thought-provoking at every turn. It points out the moral and philosophical implications of curatorial decisions: things that are normally invisible to museum visitors, but which subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) communicate the agendas of their designers. It examines a selection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century curated collections, analyzing their presentation and, in the process, taking the reader on a fascinating journey through the history of collecting, classifying, and presenting widely differing versions of Nature in the West. But Asma's book also admits and even honors the darker instincts behind peoples' love of museums: our attraction to the unusual, bizarre, and just plain gross. And I think that's only right. There's no denying the pivotal role played by a prurient fascination with monstrosities, mutations, and myths on the road to science as we know it today. As Asma points out, "Oddities force us to attend. ... Museums figured this out a long time ago." The jar that first drew my attention was about the size of an industrial stew pot and contained a curdled mass of flesh. This menacing basketball-sized blob was a tumor that John Hunter surgically removed from a man's neck in 1785 (fig. 2.8). Next to the jar was a small card quoting Hunter's notes: "The operation was performed on Monday, October the 24th, 1785; it lasted twenty-five minutes, and the man did not cry out during the whole of the operation." This poor patient had a tumor, roughly the size of his own head, sprouting out of his neck, and Hunter cut it out of him sixty-odd years before anesthesia was discovered - with nothing to numb the pain except some swigs of whiskey. As I pondered many of the pathology jars, I wanted to get on my knees and thank the gods of experimental medicine for letting me be born in the twentieth century.In the first half of the nineteenth century England's intelligentsia was dominated by the "argument from design." Natural theologians were arguing that the natural world was perfectly adapted - each animal organ and appendage perfectly suited the peculiarities of different habitats and activities. Such perfect design, the argument concluded, proves the existence of a benevolent designer God. One of the overriding impressions that Hunter's pathology collection leaves on the observer, however, is that nature is sloppy. The notion of the perfect adaptation or fit of each animal to its environment and the elegantly coordinated physiological adaptation of each individual to itself (organs arranged and functioning in harmony) is dramatically challenged by Hunter's pathology jars.As this passage illustrates, Asma moves from grotesque example to illuminating analytical observation, and the whole is delivered in a lively, readable prose. His book is structured, not in strict chronological order, but as a series of related investigative essays covering subjects from the development of taxidermy and embalming, to the history of taxonomy, to the national differences among modern presentations of evolutionary biology. His approach reminded me of an updated take on the 18th-century conversational essay - a form I very much enjoy, and one uniquely suited to Asma's subject matter, given the space he devotes to the Enlightenment-era collections of John Hunter and Georges Cuvier. His approachable prose is a real plus, since the reader is trying to wrap her head around radically different world-views throughout the book. At one point, while discussing a half-digested human stomach, Asma points out that in order to appreciate the specimen from an 18th-century point of view, we must imaginatively think ourselves back to an era when a purely mechanical mode of digestion was a possibility. This is actually quite difficult, since the role of stomach acid is so firmly entrenched in our minds. Similar thought experiments are necessary to grasp many of the pre-Darwinian stops along the track of natural philosophy, but Asma proves a capable conductor, endearingly enthusiastic about the human and scientific oddities he discovers along the way.In his opening chapter, he observes that Educational and entertainment institutions meet in the common-ground territory of the spectacular. But some spectacles lead to something cognitive or reflective, and the hope of the educator is to facilitate that trajectory. There is a place in that trajectory for the odd, the wonderful, and the grotesque. But some spectacles, using the same spectacular launching pads of human curiosity, only lead back to themselves. The thrill-ride spectacle can be "managed" in such a way that it leads to more of the same, not contemplation and reflection. The spectacle itself becomes the commodity.In addition to being an accurate description of his own book, this strikes me as a sane and reasonable take on the "edutainment" debate vis-a-vis museums, which Asma tackles at greater length in his final chapter. While justly concerned about the effect on museums of alliances with corporate sponsors (i.e., how can a museum maintain objectivity in an exhibit about petroleum, if the primary source of funding is an oil company?), he lauds curatorial attempts to lighten the mood of exhibits, to teach with humor and not take themselves and their subject matter in deadly earnest. I think there is a tendency among people who stand up against "edutainment" (understood as entertainment without content), to look down on any exhibit that encourages people to laugh, or connect a scientific concept with some element of popular culture. But, as Asma rightly points out, studies show that laughter improves peoples' willingness and ability to remember information. It therefore seems backward to get sniffy about humorous exhibits, since there's a high likelihood they're doing a better job of teaching than their unfunny analogs, while simultaneously showing museum patrons a good time. Of course entertainment shouldn't be the only experience one finds in a museum, but Asma makes a strong point for it being one effective curatorial tool, and one that, perhaps, ought to be used more often, especially given the modern distrust of authority figures. When a museum can laugh at itself for a moment, he points out, it lets down its guard and becomes more relatable and sympathetic to patrons, and they in turn become more receptive to new ideas. If used thoughtfully, spectacle and laughter can lead to contemplation; when used exploitatively, they only lead back to themselves. The spectacle in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads was uniformly linked to fascinating ideas and information, and I'll be contemplating much of it for a long time to come.

  • Brittany
    2019-05-12 01:53

    In this book, Asma examines the history and philosophy of natural history museums. Using six museums as his main case studies, he explores the history of taxidermy and exhibit design, and then moves into the heady area of the assumptions and agendas of museum curators -- for example, how evolution and natural selection are dealt with, and how whole wings and museums are organized and designed. For the most part, this is a well-written interesting read. At times, he does get a little bogged down in the weeds of the evolution and taxonomy debates, but those are also clearly areas that fascinated him. It may be that these sections would be fascinating to a general reader, but are boring to me because they're part of what I think about every day. He also occasionally over-indulged in unnecessary alliteration, but I think that can be forgiven as well.

  • Mackenzie Brooks
    2019-04-27 01:10

    This was a good book even though it took me a long time to read. I liked the museumy parts more than the biology parts.

  • Allison
    2019-04-25 00:53

    Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads; The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. 1st ed.,. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Isbn: 0-19-516336-2 (pbk.)Stephen T. Asma, PH.D. is a Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Columbia College Chicago . His area of Specialization includes Philosophy (ancient and modern) and History of Life sciences, Eastern Philosophy ( esp. Buddhism), Religion and Science, Philosophy of Religion, Museum Studies, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics and Cultural Studies Theory. Stephen is the author of multifarious books and articles. He has had an impressive series of public lectures including: an Invited Keynote lecture “Natural History and Truth” at the Field Museum (Chicago) “Field Ambassador Program” August 23, 2003, to note one of many. Interestingly Stephen is an illustrator and a musician. You can find more about him by following this link: I loaned Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads; The culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums from the Morbid Anatomy Library. The book is well worn with underlined text throughout. To me this is a sign of a book being a popular read. Stephen T. Asma's book brings us through a stimulating narrative of the museology of natural history museums. In the first chapter Asma lured me in with grotesque details, for instance his description of "Flesh Eating beetles and the Art of Taxidermy" ( the title of the first chapter). This first chapter gives us a behind the scenes look at the art of specimen preservation and of science museums such as The American Museum of Natural History, Chicago Field Museum and The Hunterian Museum to name a few.Asma traces the history of science museums focusing on how and why specimens were collected and displayed and who pioneered this. He introduces pivotal characters: the collector, anatomist, medical illustrator, curator and the observer to frame an, "intellectual memoir of the specimens themselves and the collection cultures that managed them."-Asma. The book shows historical progression of culture, entertainment, scientific knowledge and how all of this was affected by Darwin, and his contemporaries, discoveries (evolution). These discoveries directly affected the way in which specimens were investigated, displayed, collected, preserved and used for education. ( write sentence about what were the huge cultural shifts that changed< what was important; culturally and what changed in natural history museums.) Asma stresses how important modes of classification and display are; in fact, they are the spine of our natural historic knowledge. "The odd thing about a specimen is that it's a kind of cipher when considered in isolation. Specimens are a lot like words: They don't mean anything unless they're in the context of a sentence or a system, and their meanings are extremely promiscuous." - Asma. The wealth of information in each chapter is delivered like an essay, with copious amounts of quotable lines on every other page that creates a desire to read the book a second time. I have already re-read my favorite, chapter 3 titled " Taxonomic Intoxication Part 1: Visualizing the Invisible and Part 2 In Search of the Engine room." Which is about the act of classification in modern european taxonomy. Asma's 12 pages of notes for further reading, that include supporting details for all seven chapters, lend credibility to his curious research. I think this quote is an encouraging message that his book proclaims, "If we learn the skill of reading between the lines at natural history museums, we begin to see deep ideological commitments quietly happening and edition the sorts of things different cultures and different historical epochs consider to be knowledge." - Asma

  • Jen
    2019-05-10 00:42

    I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I think it's a fascinating analysis of the rhetoric of natural history museums -- how the organization of the exhibit, what the curator chooses to include or exclude and how the exhibit is displayed influences the viewer. Museums as persuasion! I think that Asma's writing style is very engaging as well. I normally don't read much science writing (this is my husband's book -- although I guess it's marital property), but I found it accessable without making me feel as if I were being talked down to. As a former Spanish teacher/debate coach who is now a stay-at-home mom of a 15-month old, I also appreciated reading a book that uses words like "ontology" and "empirical" rather than "ball" and "tree." I think Asma's background in philosophy drew me in and gave him a unique perspective on his topic. On the other hand, I found his organization confusing. At the end of the book, I'm not quite sure what his thesis is. Is this a rhetorical analysis of museums or a history of natural history museums or both? I THINK it's the first through the lens of the second, but I'm not sure. Also, Chapter 6 seems like it just doesn't belong. It's a defense of evolution that comes off as a bit defensive and culminates with Asma using logical reasoning to justify his agnosticism. I'm not sure how that fits in with the rest of the book, other than that natural history museums have displays about evolution. But as a Christian who accepts the scientific principle of evolution, I found this chapter borderline offensive. Christianity needs to be accepted on faith, not because it's something that can be proven. I also think that the majority of his audience is NOT made up of fundamentalist creationists, who would hardly be reading this book, so who is he trying to convince? So I don't understand the purpose of that chapter within the context of the book, nor do I agree with his reasoning -- evolution and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. I wavered between three and four stars, but decided that, to me, three stars means I neither liked nor disliked the book. I DID enjoy reading this book, so I gave it four stars.

  • Danielle T
    2019-04-25 00:58

    SAaPH has been on my to-read list for quite a while (because there's only so many books available to a popular audience about preserving dead things in an academic setting), so when I saw it at a used bookstore had to jump on it. Until I started it, I didn't realize Asma was a philosophy professor which means a different perspective than other books on museology (such as Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum, by a trilobite specialist at the NHM in London). A good survey on the history of natural history museums and how collections are shaped by the perspective of their curator (anyone who's taken evolutionary biology will recognize Cuvier's strict orderliness and Richard Owens' attempt to rein in the beautiful chaos of John Hunter's massive wet prep collection), Asma muddles a bit when he muses over how and what museums should be narrating to patrons, especially in America where evolution is still a controversial subject (even ten years after he initially published it, the statistics haven't changed much). Considering natural history museums are one of the oldest, widely accessible means of science communication his philosophical thoughts apply to those interested in bridging the understanding gap in other mediums. This was published in 2001, so I'm wondering if Asma's written anything on more recent events like the Field reducing its research projects or Ken Ham's glorious monstrosity of the Creation Museum down in Kentucky.

  • Laura
    2019-04-25 03:41

    Coming from a zoo history background, this book was a lot of fun. It is amusing how natural history museums and zoos face basically the same challenges in exhibiting their collections (if not in the day-to-day upkeep). The book starts off with Asma's hilarious setup to how he became interested in studying the practical and cultural aspects of natural history museums, which alone makes the book worth reading. The museums themselves are then somewhat sidelined for the majority of the book as he explores the developing and competing philosophies of taxonomy and classification over the centuries. This gets more than a little dry (despite his attempts keep the humor up), but it does provide a wonderful overview of changing scientific views on the biological side and puts a few personal faces on the competing ideologies (and being a philosophy professor, Asma handles the material expertly and presents it in a very comprehendable way). It is a well-presented discussion of the role of museums and the challenges of combining educaton and entertainment without destructively diluting the key concepts.

  • Ian
    2019-05-03 04:53

    I had sort of a mixed experience with "Stuffed Animals"—I was expecting something to focus much more closely on the origins and changing purpose of natural history museums, which was perhaps an idea I got from the title. In fact, the book is much more general, and offers a survey of the last three or four hundred years of natural philosophy, biology, taxonomy, teratology, comparative anatomy, and the study of evolution, along with an abbreviated but not uninformed account of the culture and evolution of the natural history museum. The survey wasn't bad, it's just that it broke little new ground (for me), and wasn't specifically enough about the subject I assumed it was about. If anyone out there is looking for a good introduction to the history of the last four hundred years of biological science, "Stuffed animals" is engagingly written with an interesting hook.

  • Lizzy
    2019-05-02 04:10

    The title really grabbed me on this one. I am an avid museum-goer and was interested in the author's premise- how did Natural History museums get to be the instituations they are today? Asma writes this conversational book extremely well. He is often as surprised as you as he finds new people to interview and unveils the next phase of history. There were many times I would be thinking "wow that is crazy" and literally the next sentence would be "I know sounds crazy doesn't it". A background in evolutionary theory, comparative biology, or natural history would be good but not necessary as Asma does a great job explaining the players and their theories/methods/contributions. This book was a favorite car-ride read-aloud that we were sad to finish. It will be in my regular rotation of books for a long time.

  • Alethea
    2019-05-19 02:46

    I'm trying, with limited success, to research the origins of the Natural History museum--the wunsterkammers and similar of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This book looked fairly promising, and started fairly promisingly, but unfortunately veered somewhat aside after the first chapters. As I should probably have suspected of a book written by a philosophy professor, it spent a lot of time exploring the "philosophy" and theory behind modern museum displays--which might have been a lot more entertaining if that was what I was actually looking for. As it was, I found the historical discussions tantalizing but insufficient, and the modern bulk of the book unappealingly theoretical.

  • Amanda
    2019-04-23 21:42

    I wanted to read this book after reading about it in Still Life, a book about taxidermy. I thought it was going to be more about the museums and how they operate, their history and the people who made them happen. While to a certain extent some of this is true, I found myself crazy bored by descriptions of Darwinian evolution, taxonomy, classificatory systems, and complicated histories of scientists and theorists. Ugh. The parts describing Asma's research, fun side facts, and much of the strange and wonderful juicy bits that one expects when reading about natural history museums were great, and Asma is a great writer. But his book was not really what I was hoping for.

  • Corinna Bechko
    2019-04-23 23:56

    As someone who has spent a great deal of time in museums (including a stint working in one) I was fascinated by the philosophy and history laid bare in these pages. That said, I would have liked to see some information about how museums differ in non-western cultures. After all, if the culture of natural history diverges so much between France and the UK, I imagine it is quite different in, say, Japan. But that's a small quibble. Anyone who loves museums and wants to know more about how they organize their collections, interface with the public, and handle their legacies, will enjoy this book as much as I did.

  • Michele
    2019-05-16 02:00

    I loved this book! Asma has a gift for words and takes what could be a really dry (put me to sleep) subject (taxonomies) and makes it interesting. Although he focuses on natural history museums, I could also see many parallels with the library world. Also lots of oddities and curiosities within ... I recently got to see the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. This is one of the collections discussed in the book.

  • Jess
    2019-05-01 02:46

    At its best when close reading natural history museums, particularly the politics and biases of the curators, but sometimes the science (and science history) was too much for me. That said, the fact that the same battles surrounding metaphysics and evolution, between fact and conjecture, are still being fought is shocking and saddening.

  • Michael
    2019-05-02 23:43

    It started out well with an interesting discussion of the history of natural history museums, but quickly degenerated into a "Philosophy of the Modern Natural History Display". Imagine combining a rambling philosophy thesis with a biology textbook and you're heading towards this book. Not what I'd hoped for at all.

  • Bill
    2019-05-16 01:08

    The title of this book is misleading. The book appears to be sensational. Instead with the exception of a few facts, it is a philosophical history of museum display which, once that is figured out, is a very good book. I believe it's audience is rather limited but for those who are interested in museums and how they work it is well worth a read.

  • Molly
    2019-05-12 03:49

    This book has a lot of fascinating stuff in it, but even as someone very interested in the subject, I bogged down a bit in the middle. Unfortunatey, like many academic books, this one lacks a great sense of pacing. Still, a worthwhile read!

  • Janet
    2019-05-12 01:44

    Initial chapters and final one most interesting. Chapter 5, which the author probably views as the heart of the book, is tedious. But I'll never look at a natural history museum exhibit in quite the same way again.

  • Tom
    2019-05-02 22:53

    A mildly interesting journey through the intellectual underpinnings of museums, from the first curiosity cabinets of the Enlightenment, through to the gigantic complexes of today. The idea of how museums are the intersection of art and science is an interesting little thought.

  • Dayna
    2019-05-05 02:58

    This is much more meaty that I thought it would be, and all the more enjoyable for that. Asma explores taxonomy, curiosity cabinets, evolution & creationism (and how scientists - and the Pope - try to reconcile the two) and reflects on what these things say about us.

  • Jess
    2019-05-09 23:08

    Any book where you run around the house looking for someone with whom to share the fascinating tidbit you just read is a good book. I did this a lot. I also laughed and kept saying 'oh wow' a lot. The writing style reminds me a lot of Simon Winchester.

  • Mirthe
    2019-04-20 04:57

    Interesting subject, anecdotal treatment and horrible style

  • Jae
    2019-05-10 21:05

    Fantastic book. Culture influences everything.

  • Jean
    2019-04-27 00:43

    the study endocrinology began in the intestine of a rooster.