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

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

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

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


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.


Toward the center of London's small Hunterian Museum stands an enormous human skeleton labeled the “Irish Giant.” The giant skeleton was once the frame of Mr. Charles O'Brien, born in Ireland in 1761. O'Brien came to London in 1782 and exhibited himself, charging half a crown, as “the tallest man in the world” at 8 feet 2 inches. The towering man seems to have suffered from acromegaly, a pathological enlargement of the body that results from an overactive pituitary gland.

John Hunter, the famous British anatomist, met the Irish Giant in London and openly vowed to have the Giant's skeleton for his scientific collection. By 1783 O'Brien was on his deathbed, and, apparently thinking he should be less exhibitionist in death than in life and fearful that his skeleton would indeed end up in Hunter's collection, he paid some fishermen to ferry his soon-to-be-dead body out to sea and weight it down with lead. But Hunter, somehow informed of this development, intervened at the last minute and successfully bribed the ersatz undertakers. He brought O'Brien's corpse to his Earl's Court home, where he prepared the specimen himself by boiling it in a huge kettle.

Two centuries later I stood gawking in amazement at O'Brien's colossal skeleton. Compared to Hunter's nightmarish pathology cabinets to the left, the skeleton actually seemed quite tame. Contemplating these ghastly but fascinating exhibits, I felt as though I was learning more than scientific information. I was glimpsing the workings of John Hunter's mind, the mind of a man who seemed simultaneously a genius and a madman. It's no wonder that science has been saddled with Frankenstein stereotypes. Imagine living down the lane from John Hunter, where on any given day you might see him chasing his mutant roosters around the yard, or feeding his bright red pig, or ushering into his barn some shady grave diggers carrying mysterious bulky sacks.

The protagonists that you will encounter in this book are not only worthy of serious study because of their contributions to life science and museology, but also utterly intriguing characters. They not only collected curiosities; they were curiosities. Throughout this book, I try to give some palpable sense of the people who historically worked (and currently work) behind the scenes at natural history museums. I also spend a fair amount of time trying to unravel the cultural and . . .

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