Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Deki Compilation Post (4)

In my quest for amazing and useful Web 2.0 tools, I have discovered a new collaboration tool called Deki Express. Designed by MindTouch, Deki Express is the free version of several Deki platforms available. Deki is a "mashup capable wiki", or "an open source enterprise collaboration and community platform." Users can create their own wiki and integrate with other web services like Google, Yahoo!, Windows Live, Flickr, YouTube, and WidgetBox. It is easy to embed content from other websites. MindTouch claims that Deki Express is the "most feature rich wiki available" that "allows you to create, organize, aggregate, and mashup information." It is easy to set up, easy to use, and free, and can be used for many different types of collaboration. Once you login and create your Deki account, you can quickly and easily design your page/s, add content, and invite collaborators. You can also edit the layout and design of your page/s, creating a customized look, and can add all kinds of content. You can attach and share files such as documents, videos, and pictures, and track changes made by users.

To begin using Deki Express, you must register and create an account. Once you're registered and signed in, you can begin to customize your wiki. You can choose a template to create a customized look, with a nice background and a main image in the corner. You can also create multiple pages for your wiki, each with its own title. Next, you can add content by typing in the boxes, or uploading images or files. You can also add extensions, including widgets from other websites. Finally, and most importantly, invite other users! You can specify what permissions to grant to your users, so that they can only view the wiki, or they can act as Admins and modify the wiki, or add and edit content. Deki Express allows to you track the changes users make, so you can restore previous versions if you wish. I created a slideshow on Prezi to illustrate Deki Express and its functions.

There are some similar wiki tools. MediaWiki was originally designed for use on Wikipedia. It looks just like Wikipedia, in terms of design and layout. The website describes MediaWiki as "free server-based software which is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). It's designed to be run on a large server farm for a website that gets millions of hits per day." It is the most popular wiki platform on the web. However, MindTouch Deki has some improvements over MediaWiki, which are too technical for me to understand but apparently they are important to web developers. Another similar tool is Drupal. Drupal is an open-source content management platform, which "supports a variety of websites ranging from personal weblogs to large community-driven websites." Like MediaWiki, Drupal is also free software distributed under GPL, and has a lot of features like MediaWiki and Deki. There are also ways Deki supposedly improves on Drupal.

MindTouch is a San Diego-based company that delivers Web services, distributed computing, service oriented architecture (SOA), Internet infrastructure and open-source development. They have millions of customers, including Microsoft, Fujitsu, Siemens, Gannett, The Washington Post, Intel, U.S. Army, and the Department of Defense.

You may now be asking yourself, "Why this Deki tool, and what does it have to do with me and museums?" I'm glad you asked. I have recently been exploring the connection between Web 2.0 technology and museums (especially natural history museums, of course) and have discovered a whole area dedicated to this topic. (Check out Nina Simon's excellent blog "Museum 2.0".) Many museums, especially natural history museums, are currently trying to transition from the old way of doing things, to a new, more technological, collaborative, and open way of doing business. From working in a natural history museum I frequently witness firsthand the need for more integration of new technologies, as well as the difficulties involved with getting staff and partners to learn and use new technology. Many museum projects involve dozens of people across the country, around the world, and in several different companies. These projects--and even the smaller scale projects and communications that occur every day--require a better way to collaborate. This is where a high function, customizable, and easy to use wiki like Deki comes into the picture. As I began exploring Deki, I felt a thrill of excitement imagining what it would be like if everyone at my museum used Deki, rather than the endless stream of emails. Deki, if it was instituted throughout the museum and used with partners, could really change the way we operate.

Another use I see for Deki is amongst us bloggers and collectors, all of us who are interested in this topic of natural history and its museums, as well as those of us who want to share our collections with each other. With Deki we could compile our information and images and collaborate on various research and projects. Deki has so many features and so much potential, it's hard to think of anything it couldn't do when it comes to online collaboration.

While at first glance this seemed like such an easy tool for any non-tech person to use, I'm going to have to modify that initial impression. I'm discovering that Deki may be easy to use, but only once a tech-savvy administrator/corporate IT-person sets it up. Most of the language on the MindTouch website is very technical and not accessible to the average person. I consider myself to be fairly tech smart, for a non-tech person, but I could not understand about half of the words they used. I can tell that Deki has all kinds of useful and neat web tools to embed and use in conjunction with the wiki, but I don't understand what exactly these tools are, nor how to add them to my Deki pages. It's obvious that if I were a regular employee of a museum, and our IT person set up a Deki for us to use to collaborate on museum projects, I could easily access the wiki, add content, and view what others had added, and my life and the lives of my coworkers would be greatly improved. I might even be able to modify some of the settings, but that's about it. It seems to me that Deki is designed to be used by larger companies and corporations with IT departments and personnel, rather than being a more informal, anyone-can-use, kind of tool.

That said, from what I can tell, Deki seems to be an incredibly useful tool. Again, I'm a little lost reading the tech-heavy language, but MindTouch Deki gets consistently great reveiws and lots of awards. Most of the reviews I came across describe Deki as the best wiki out there. MindTouch has been "recognized for the most sophisticated, popular, award-winning, enterprise-scale, open-source Wiki solution in the market today." (from Groundswell)

MindTouch Deki also appears to have a lot of customers, including many large companies and government agencies, such as the U.S. Army, the EPA, the Washington Post, Microsoft, Harvard, etc.

I have created an account on Deki, and began making my own wiki to try it out. Here is my page:











(notice the custom picture in the upper left corner, and the colorful background.) This shows how the page looks if you're not logged in. If you're logged in, and are in Edit mode, it looks like this:











So, to conclude, MindTouch Deki is a fantastic collaboration tool for organizations, especially modern natural history museums, but is not designed for those who don't have their own IT departments at their disposal.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blogorama: Revised

Hello!

Welcome to Curious Cabinets, a blog dedicated to all things related to Natural History Museums. From their beginnings, as curiosity cabinets or wunderkammern in the 17th century—random collections of stuffed, dead natural wonders obtained by the wealthy for the sole purpose of amusement and entertainment—to their modern day incarnations as institutions designed to educated the public, natural history museums have occupied a strange and ambiguous place in human culture. Part science, part art; part morbid curiosity and part medical teaching; education and entertainment; revered center of learning and freak show; these museums, in all their forms, and with all their various purposes, are difficult to define. Even the modern natural history museums with which we are all familiar vary greatly from one to another. For some, a natural history museum means dinosaur bones; for another, it means anatomical anomalies; for another, anthropological relics. In these places our desire for culture and learning mingle with our fascination with the odd and morbid. We visit museums to be educated, and also shocked, grossed out, or entertained.

Allow me to introduce myself: I am primarily a collector, fascinated by all the beautiful and bizarre forms of nature, and a scientist (a paleontologist to be exact). Bones can reveal an amazing amount of information if you know how to read them; 70 million-year-old skeletons buried in the dirt can reveal the mysteries of evolution and our changing planet. I am fortunate to work at a natural history museum and interact with other curious people on a daily basis, but there is much I wish to learn about the history and culture behind these museums; writing this blog will allow me to do so. I am writing this blog for a class I am taking, therefore some of the posts will be writing exercises, but I intend to continue the blog after the class has ended.

To me, the one common denominator for all natural history museums, whether a modern institution or a 17th century Italian aristocrat’s curiosity cabinet, is the element of wonder. They inspire us to ponder the natural world and draw new connections between things; the act of collecting and arranging is itself a way of trying to grasp the world. Following this theme of wonder and curiosity, in this blog I will explore the history and evolution of natural history museums. I will take you on a tour of both the popular large institutions such as the Field Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, as well as explore the more bizarre and less well-known, such as La Specola, the Hunterian Museum, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I will trace the history of the natural history museum, the various forms it has taken, and the collections held by the different museums. I will explore related scientific topics such as evolution and taxonomy, as well as techniques of collecting and preserving specimens used through history. Along the way I will leave plenty of room for the mind to wander into dim rooms full of strange objects or follow curious meanderings into the arcane and mysterious. Follow me as I part the curtains onto the strange, marvelous world of the natural history museum.

Blog Profile: Bioephemera

I recently discovered Jessica Palmer's engrossing blog Bioephemera, which contains many delightful “random observations and connections about pretty much everything,” in true curiosity cabinet style. Jessica states in her profile that while her main themes are biology and art,

The trajectory will be roundabout, cephalopods and medievalists lurk in the undergrowth, and you should probably pack a picnic lunch.
She is a 31-year old PhD biologist who taught at a small college for several years before moving to Washington DC to work in science policy and communications. She posts about 2-5 times a week, and appears to have a steady following.

One of my favorite posts (and one of her most popular), which relates quite well with my blog, is “Womb, Waxes and Wonder Cabinets”, about 17th and 18th century dissection models. These models are fascinating, beautiful, and grotesque. Apparently they were popular in those times due to the taboos and difficulties associated with procuring cadavers for teaching anatomy. The museum La Specola, in Florence, still displays many of these wax models. The strangely unsettling thing about them is that they look like living people, posed as if for a figure drawing class, but they are in various stages of dissection. One model of a very pregnant woman serenely holds open her own abdominal skin, allowing the viewer a glimpse inside. This post, and many others like it, allows us to revel in our curiosity and morbid fascinations, while remaining grounded in science.

Another post I found worthy of note is “The end of an era,” which explains her decision to move her blog to scienceblogs. She explains her concerns about the scientific blogging world being too removed from the rest of the world, and that she doesn't want it to become "isolated in its own quirky culture, or inaccessible." Her blog inhabits a crossroads between science, art, and culture, and she says

I like science best when it’s informing other areas - art, humanities, policy - and being informed in return. I’m drawn to the interfaces between science and other domains of knowledge, because interfaces, as cellular biologists and chemists know, are where the most exciting, unexpected reactions take place.
This is why her blog really needs to be on Scienceblogs: to serve as a catalyst for those exciting, unexpected reactions.

Jessica's posts are usually fairly short, with information about something that has struck her fancy, with the occasional more lengthy post. She obviously has the authority to cover science-related topics, yet her blog has a more informal tone and subject matter, as if she was conversing with smart and educated friends.

I like the writer’s vision of herself as a “Victorian-style naturalist,” and her varied interests; she doesn’t just write about pure science, but explores the many intersections of science with art, culture, and history. As she explains, “This is my outlet for random observations and connections about pretty much everything,” and that is why I find her blog compatible with mine. I could definitely find inspiration in her posts, whether from the exact subject of a post or the general idea, to stimulate my own writing. My site will differ from hers in that it will be a more focused and sustained study of a specific subject.

While she has her two anchor subjects (science and art), she allows herself the freedom in her blog to explore the many random, interesting things she encounters in the world that may be only loosely related to these subjects, or which connect to those subjects in unique or novel ways. The key here is curiosity and wonder, and I think that’s what lies in the heart of most people who go into science. Science requires inquisitiveness—an avid interest in the world, as well as the determination to follow that interest and explore the object in question. This was the raison d'etre of the original curiosity cabinets: an all-consuming passion and wonder about the new discoveries being made very day.

Voice Critique: Museum of Dust

The blog Museum of Dust has a voice, and a sense of character, unlike any other blog. In fact, the blog, or "museum", is written and maintained by several characters: Ms. Incognita de Plume, the "founder and director of MoD"; Master Studley Wilcox-Lusher the III, the "Minister of Defence of MoD"; the anonymous "Head of the Administration", all of whom may or may not actually be the same person. The various voices of the different characters are maintained throughout the blog, creating a lively dialogue and sometimes even argument among the characters.

Museum of Dust (MoD) is frequently composed with language similar to that used by a venerable institution. Here, the "What" section of MoD's vision statement:
MoD's activities provide a benchmark for all other museums in the scope of the collection, unique conservation and storage challenges, the provision of public programs, and in its innovative associates program.
This high tone, reminiscent of any well-respected museum's written material, is set in almost surrealistic, post-modern relief, however, by the "Why" section of the vision statement, which explains:
The world needs somewhere that all the dust, shards, fragments and shadows can be gathered, displayed and conserved in an appropriate environment. MoD is laying down a heritage for future generations. History will be our judge.
This strange and unsettling mix of the authoritarian, "museum" voice, combined with the surreal, continues throughout the blog. Reports of the U.S. declaring war on dust are written in the objective, matter-of-fact tone of newspapers. Some posts read more like poetry, such as The Bone Room:: Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology, Musee D'Histoire Naturelle, which describes the beauty of the numerous fossils displayed at the Musee:
For the rest, it is endless vistas of bare gleaming bone. Prehistoric dinosaur bone. Modern bone. Mammel bone and reptile bone. Head bones, hip bones and tiny tiny foot bones. Bones from mega-fauna and bones from tiny marsupials smaller than a teaspoon. Beautiful bones.
The short sentence structure, combined with the repetition, sets a tone of awe for the collected objects, and creates more of a personal quality than the objective, detached, "museum" voice. It seems like there are voices struggling in opposition with one another as they portray the museum: an enthusiastic, emotional child, and a professional, scholarly adult. (I find this combination particularly appealing as it seems to describe my own attitude towards natural history.)

Another post consists of a long sentence, written in German; this contributes to the growing sense of disorientation and confusion, as well as hinting at the world of academia and elitism, in which one is expected to know several languages.

The sense of mystery is continually fostered by the author's word choice; she makes a reference to Flickr by writing, "Buried deep in the shadowy underbelly of picture-sharing community Flickr...", to which one could certainly make a much more boring reference; this description is more in keeping with the mystery of the Museum of Dust. A sense of a real person exists here, because the author uses rich, descriptive, and unique language:
Drab, dull-eyed, stricken, defiant, hopeless, unceasing, split-lip broken-head other person pain. mmmmmmmm.....
Other posts, such as the author's musings on a mysterious character named Inky (aka Inky-Blinky, a spider, Master Studly Wilcox-Lusher the III), contain more informal language, and self-references. There are even posts, such as Publicity:: Newsflash, in which she rages about supposed goings-on within the museum and its staff:
And what happens? They start the campaign – no launch, no fanfare, NOTHING – in the Oubliette! The OUBLIETTE!!! Well, that was obvious insubordination. And then consider the patronising, not to mention dishonest, rubbish scrawled on it! And then to cap it all off, that nasty snide little caption. They hate me. They’re trying to demoralize and destabilize me. I suspect they’re Fifth Columnists. Maybe even Musrum’s Fellow Travellers.
The writer really builds a character (several characters, actually) by revealing her/their thoughts and emotions, in addition to the more official museum postings.

The content of the blog posts varies, from memos about upcoming staff meetings, clips of artworks or museum displays, pseudo news items, and of course, posts about dust.

Thanks to all of these compelling voice techniques and experimental forms of writing, Museum of Dust makes for a delightful, surprising, and thought-provoking read. Like a good work of fiction, the reader desires to delve into the world of the strange characters and their odd museum, and see what dusty discoveries might be found along the way.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Modern Marvel of Curiosities

If you haven't yet explored the World Digital Library, you should check out this amazing, beautiful site, which "makes available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world." In stunning visual format, the WDL displays cultural treasures that "include, but are not limited to, manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings." It was launched just last month by the Library of Congress and partner institutions.

Some items more or less randomly chosen from the library:

a map of the British Empire throughout the world, from the 1850s















the Japanese art of Ukiyo-e















Plants with parasites















You can search by topic, type of item, time, or place, and there is a wealth of information offered about each item.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Museum 2.0

I've mentioned before my interest in museums, Web 2.0, technology, and the future of museums. I thought I'd write a post on this topic, especially since the American Association of Museums (AAM) just had their annual meeting in Philadelphia. Unfortunately I was not able to attend, but some of my coworkers went and there is also good coverage of the conference online:

http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2009/05/aam-recap-slides-observations-and.html
http://museum30.ning.com/
http://09aamblog.wordpress.com/

The main topics of the conference were: "Ensuring financial stability in a sluggish economy; reaching new audiences; serving local communities through education and public outreach; and integrating new technologies into museum exhibitions." I think it's interesting to note the direction museums, or at least the insider talk about museums, is heading in. While many museums are struggling to stay relevant in the digital age, and are seen as old, dusty, slow, boring, or out-of-date, some fascinating talk is occurring by those who think about, talk about, and run museums for a living. Most museums I know are still working on merging into new media; the museum at which I work is currently redesigning their website, as it seems very old already. While this transition appears to move slowly in the physical world of museum design and public relations, it is progressing much more rapidly in the realm of museum theory. In fact, this year's meeting focused less on new technology and its applications for museums, and more on community involvement and curatorship, active participation, and transparency. It would seem that museum theory is starting to take its cues from Web 2.0 theory.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Even more about Deki

Yes, folks, I have more to say about Deki. At first glance this seemed like such an easy tool for any non-tech person to use, but I think I'm going to have to modify that initial impression. I'm discovering that Deki may be easy to use, but only once a tech-savvy administrator/corporate IT-person sets it up. Most of the language on the MindTouch website is very technical and not accessible to the average person. I consider myself to be fairly tech smart, for a non-tech person, but I could not understand about half of the words they used. I can tell that Deki has all kinds of useful and neat web tools to embed and use in conjunction with the wiki, but I don't understand what exactly these tools are, nor how to add them to my Deki pages. It's obvious that if I were a regular employee of a museum, and our IT person set up a Deki for us to use to collaborate on museum projects, I could easily access the wiki, add content, and view what others had added, and my life and the lives of my coworkers would be greatly improved. I might even be able to modify some of the settings, but that's about it. It seems to me that Deki is designed to be used by larger companies and corporations with IT departments and personnel, rather than being a more informal, anyone-can-use, kind of tool.

That said, from what I can tell, Deki seems to be an incredibly useful tool. Again, I'm a little lost reading the tech-heavy language, but MindTouch Deki gets consistently great reveiws and lots of awards. Most of the reviews I came across describe Deki as the best wiki out there. MindTouch has been "recognized for the most sophisticated, popular, award-winning, enterprise-scale, open-source Wiki solution in the market today." (from Groundswell)

MindTouch Deki also appears to have a lot of customers, including many large companies and government agencies, such as the U.S. Army, the EPA, the Washington Post, Microsoft, Harvard, etc.

I have created an account on Deki, and began making my own wiki to try it out. Here is my page:











(notice the custom picture in the upper left corner, and the colorful background.) This shows how the page looks if you're not logged in. If you're logged in, and are in Edit mode, it looks like this:











So, to conclude, MindTouch Deki is a fantastic collaboration tool for organizations, but is not designed for those who don't have their own IT departments at their disposal.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More about Deki

Since my last post you may be asking yourself, "Why this Deki tool, and what does it have to do with me and museums?" I'm glad you asked. I have recently been exploring the connection between Web 2.0 technology and museums (especially natural history museums, of course) and have discovered a whole area dedicated to this topic. (Check out Nina Simon's excellent blog "Museum 2.0".) Many museums, especially natural history museums, are currently trying to transition from the old way of doing things, to a new, more technological, collaborative, and open way of doing business. From working in a natural history museum I frequently witness firsthand the need for more integration of new technologies, as well as the difficulties involved with getting staff and partners to learn and use new technology. Many museum projects involve dozens of people across the country, around the world, and in several different companies. These projects--and even the smaller scale projects and communications that occur every day--require a better way to collaborate. This is where a high function, customizable, and easy to use wiki like Deki comes into the picture. As I began exploring Deki, I felt a thrill of excitement imagining what it would be like if everyone at my museum used Deki, rather than the endless stream of emails. Deki, if it was instituted throughout the museum and used with partners, could really change the way we operate.

Another use I see for Deki is amongst us bloggers and collectors, all of us who are interested in this topic of natural history and its museums, as well as those of us who want to share our collections with each other. With Deki we could compile our information and images and collaborate on various research and projects. Deki has so many features and so much potential, it's hard to think of anything it couldn't do when it comes to online collaboration.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Web 2.0 tools: Deki

In my quest for amazing and useful Web 2.0 tools, I have discovered a new collaboration tool called Deki Express. Designed by MindTouch, Deki Express is the free version of several Deki platforms available. Deki is a "mashup capable wiki", or "an open source enterprise collaboration and community platform." Users can create their own wiki and integrate with other web services like Google, Yahoo!, Windows Live, Flickr, YouTube, and WidgetBox. It is easy to embed content from other websites. MindTouch claims that Deki Express is the "most feature rich wiki available" that "allows you to create, organize, aggregate, and mashup information." It is easy to set up, easy to use, and free, and can be used for many different types of collaboration. Once you login and create your Deki account, you can quickly and easily design your page/s, add content, and invite collaborators. You can also edit the layout and design of your page/s, creating a customized look, and can add all kinds of content. You can attach and share files such as documents, videos, and pictures, and track changes made by users.

To begin using Deki Express, you must register and create an account. Once you're registered and signed in, you can begin to customize your wiki. You can choose a template to create a customized look, with a nice background and a main image in the corner. You can also create multiple pages for your wiki, each with its own title. Next, you can add content by typing in the boxes, or uploading images or files. You can also add extensions, including widgets from other websites. Finally, and most importantly, invite other users! You can specify what permissions to grant to your users, so that they can only view the wiki, or they can act as Admins and modify the wiki, or add and edit content. Deki Express allows to you track the changes users make, so you can restore previous versions if you wish.

There are some similar wiki tools. MediaWiki was originally designed for use on Wikipedia. It looks just like Wikipedia, in terms of design and layout. The website describes MediaWiki as "free server-based software which is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). It's designed to be run on a large server farm for a website that gets millions of hits per day." It is the most popular wiki platform on the web. However, MindTouch Deki has some improvements over MediaWiki, which are too technical for me to understand but apparently they are important to web developers. Another similar tool is Drupal. Drupal is an open-source content management platform, which "supports a variety of websites ranging from personal weblogs to large community-driven websites." Like MediaWiki, Drupal is also free software distributed under GPL, and has a lot of features like MediaWiki and Deki. There are also ways Deki supposedly improves on Drupal.

MindTouch is a San Diego-based company that delivers Web services, distributed computing, service oriented architecture (SOA), Internet infrastructure and open-source development. They have millions of customers, including Microsoft, Fujitsu, Siemens, Gannett, The Washington Post, Intel, U.S. Army, and the Department of Defense.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Museum-think

The field of Museum Studies is very new; critical approaches to natural history museums have only begun to analyze museums in relation to cultural studies in the last 20 or so years. Before the emergence of this new field, museums were approached from a very straightforward, scientific view, whereas now there is a more postmodern approach. Questions about the meaning, purpose, and values of natural history museums are being explored.

In addition to these scholarly investigations, a burgeoning subculture surrounding natural history is arising, especially on the internet and in the art world. While the academic museum studies represent a postmodern, critical approach to contemporary museums, these DIY-type museum studies embody a return to pre-modern museum days, in a way, at the same time as they utilize contemporary technology. In real as well as virtual "collections", individual people are reviving the curiosity cabinet. One interesting result is that art and science are often blended in these collections, as evidenced by taxidermy art or jewelry made from animal parts. Just like in the original curiosity cabinets, where manmade artifacts and artworks were displayed side by side with natural objects and animals.

One major difference from the original curiosity cabinets, however, is that these collections are made by anyone, and enjoyed by anyone; no special status is required. In the 16th and 17th century, collectors like Aldrovandi, Kircher,and Ole Worm occupied the upper classes of society. Their collections of artifacts and oddities represented "an appreciation of the marvelous for its own sake" (Asma), which had become de rigeur after the discovery of the New World. These Renaissance cabinets, which were actually huge rooms crammed full with random objects, were housed in private homes and were not accessible to the public. Their primary purpose was to entertain the elite, not educate the public.

The founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660 took place within a shift towards a more scientific approach to collecting and studying the natural world. The founding members believed that "the aesthetically pleasing objects of the separate curiosity cabinets could reveal deep truths about causes once they were brought together and studied comparatively and analytically...The curiosity cabinets were being consumed and transformed by the scientific revolution." Rather than wondering in amazement at the curiosities of nature, scientists were beginning to attempt to understand them according to scientific principles. The chaotic, random collections began to be seen as juvenile and old-fashioned in this new light. The value of collections was now seen as lying in their arrangement and classification, which could reveal important relationships between and among living things.

The implications of the Museum of Jurassic Technology


My working thesis for the paper I am writing is that the concept of what is acceptable, and what isn't, in natural history museums changes over time and is deeply based on the societal norms of a museum's setting. I am focusing my paper around the Museum of Jurassic Technology, as it calls into question many of the basic concepts surrounding natural history museums, as well as bearing commentary on the history of natural history museums and how it relates to the present.

Some of the consequences of my argument reflect the postmodern quality of the MJT, as follows:
All ways of categorizing and creating normative valuations are cultural constructs, based on societal norms and customs. The way science is interpreted and displayed for the public is shaped by these norms and customs, and therefore the concepts of truth and reality, in terms of natural history museums, are somewhat relative. The basis of rationality in museums is determined by the dominant culture of the time and place in which they occur, and this changes over time. The ordering of specimens and displays within each museum takes place according to specific standards and foundational guidelines held by each museum, and thus there is a hidden value system which can be decoded from museum collections and displays. Thus, rather than presenting objective, detached expositions of natural history, these museums (despite their scientific and academic subject matter) are to a large degree subjective reflections of their cultural values.

A modern museum

I recently visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The newly renovated building, which is LEED platinum certified and took nearly 10 years and $500 million dollars to build, features a natural history museum, a planetarium, an aquarium, and a 4-story indoor rainforest. I approached this uber-modern museum with a critical eye, both as a museum employee and in light of my research into the history of natural history museums. What struck me most, overall, was the sheer modernness of it all: many of the traditional barriers between what happens "behind the scenes" and what the visitor sees were removed; more scientific information and research was presented, fostering a learning environment for the visitor; and the concepts of conservation, ecology, and global warming were omnipresent.

Visitors can watch a taxidermist at work in the lab behind glass, actually preparing animals. A camera is trained on the process, which is projected on a screen.


Another important divergence from traditional natural history museums is that there are live animals along with the dead ones. The African Hall, an original exhibit from 1934, has new living animal displays mixed in with the original taxidermy dioramas. At the end of the hall there is a colony of African penguins, which waddle, dive, and swim to the amusement of the visitors. The aquarium, with 38,000 live animals, would have been worth visiting just on its own.

Jellyfish tranquilly pulsing through their tank:
video

All this modernity made me think about the history of natural history museums, as the Academy of Sciences so clearly breaks with many traditions while still reflecting its heritage.

One of the earliest incarnations of a natural history museum was Ole Worm's collection in Copenhagen: These Renaissance-era collections were inspired by the vast amount of previously unknown things that were being discovered in the New World. There was little discernible order in the collections, which looked like explosions of natural and manmade items all crammed together in rooms and cabinets. As Lawrence Weschler explains in his book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder,
The point is that for a good century and a half after the discovery of the Americas, Europe's mind was blown. That was the animating spirit behind, and the enduring significance of, the profusion of Wunderkammern.
As the times gave way to the Enlightenment, this pervasive sense of wonder began to be replaced by a desire for order, calm understanding, scientific certainty, and progress, thus changing the nature of collections. Descartes wrote that
What we commonly call being astonished is an excess of wonder which can never be otherwise than bad.
Naturalists such as Hunter and Cuvier created collections intended to convey "the rationality and orderliness beneath the profusion and confusion of forms." (Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads) The shifts in taxonomy over the next couple hundred years had profound effects on the type of museum displays employed, and indeed on the fundamental concept of a natural history museum.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Expanding the topic

Our class was instructed to apply the Topoi technique (an Aristotelian invention) to our research topic, and see where it takes us. It seems to be a valuable technique for exploring deeper into a topic, and generating questions one otherwise might not have thought of. Here are the (sprawling, uncensored) results of my exercise, organized by topos.

Topics:

The history of natural history museums: they started in the 16th century (Rennaisance) with wunderkammern ("wonder cabinets"), which were random collections of man-made and natural wonders used to demonstrate the glory of god and the diversity of his works, with no organization or discernment. With the Enlightenment, they became "curiosity cabinets" which were much more scientific, organized, principled, focused on discovering nature's principles and laws. In the 19th century Darwin explained evolution which revolutionized the scientific world and the natural history museums, and gave them their organizing principle and purpose which persists today in most modern natural history museums.

Sub-topics: history of science (natural science, evolution, taxonomy, taxidermy); relationship between science and culture, and how it changes over time, reflected in the kinds of museums; trends and changes in culture, and how these are reflected in museums and collections*; the nature of collecting and collections, why people collect, how collections are organized; modern, "meta" museums, weird museums, commentary on museums, museums that only exist as a concept like online museums, experiments

* I'm leaning towards this one as a paper topic

Contrast:

The idea of glorifying and revering nature by hunting, killing, stuffing, and displaying animals seems rather paradoxical.
The practice of natural history transitioned from a tribute to god, to a more atheistic, scientific study.
How do natural history museums compare with other kinds of museums, like art museums? What are the differences among natural history museums (some focus more on anthropology, some focus on animal collections; different underlying/organizing principles), and how to account for/explain these differences? What are the differences among museums in different cultures, historical periods, and nations?
What is the relationship between the traditional idea of a natural history museum and certain modern "museums" (like the Museum of Jurassic Technology) which are more a reflection of or commentary upon traditional museums?

Values:

What is the value of natural history museums, anyway? Why do they even exist?
Museums convey certain moral attitudes or messages. How do these messages change over time and place? The original wunderkammern said, "God is really great, look at all the cool stuff he's made!", while most modern museums focus on human's impact on the environment (especially loss of biodiversity, but more and more about climate change as well). After Darwin, museums mostly focused on teaching evolution to the public (although at this point it's so ingrained that museums don't feel the need to do that much anymore).
What value does a museum impart to society, or its country/region?
How much do museums cost, and is it worth it? How are they funded?
What kind of spiritual enrichment might be gained from visiting these museums?

Cause/Effect:

What are the changes in society which influence changes in museums and/or collections?
What scientific advances have been made since the Middle Ages, and how do they influence museums?
What are some of the impetuses for creating collections?
How did the first versions of natural history museums arise, and why?
What effects do museums have on different audiences, and vice versa?

Change:

The obvious question, how have natural history museums have changed over time; physically, and in concept?
How have they been changing recently/in modern times, and how will they continue to change? (I could look at the effects of technology, the increasing importance placed on climate change and environmental issues, or issues of funding.)
The controversy over "edutainment", or the role of education and entertainment in museums; should entertainment play a role at all?

Considering the paper will be quite short, I am realizing that I need to narrow my focus. Right now I feel like I'm looking at ALL museums in ALL cultures over the entire history of museums (and before). I might even need to narrow it down to just one particular museum or collection, and look at what it says about the science and culture of its time/place. I'm really interested in what seems to be a current trend of meta-museums. Not even museums, though; postmodern reflections of museums and natural history. (I'm thinking Museum of Jurassic Technology, as a real life example, or all the natural history- and museum-related blogs I've found.) What do these say about our culture, about science, and about the evolution of natural history?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Personalized Web pages: using Pageflakes

As part of my ongoing research project, I've created my own personal Pageflake. Pageflakes is a site that lets you create your own page or pages, based on widgets. You can add any sort of widget imaginable, and they are all available right there on Pageflakes. One of the most useful widgets is the Website widget, which allows you to put any website right on your page, although the Anything widget is also very useful (I used it to make titles for the different sections of my page). My Pageflake compiles all of the information and sources I have been using, in one handy webpage, available to the public. It includes my annotated bibliography (through Citeline), my Delicious bookmarks and my "social bookmarking soulmate's" bookmarks, as well as RSS feeds from various blogs and websites related to my topic.

Another feature is the Universal News Search and the Universal Blog Search. I pre-set my universal news search to "natural history museum" and my universal blog search to "curiosity cabinet, wunderkammer". These were a little bit difficult to utilize properly for my topic, as the history of natural history museums is not exactly a big news item. Also, in order to obtain relevant blog posts I had to get pretty specific in the search terms. However, I think that by using them together and inputting a different search term in each, I should get some relevant information. For instance, I found out about the incredible "Wunderkammer at the MoMA" exhibit which unfortunately closed last year (If only I had known!), through the blog search. The news search gets some pretty random results; currently it's showing a home and garden calendar for Asheville, NC, along with an article called "Tales from 17th Century Graves" (definitely the more interesting of the two). I don't anticipate that these two widgets will actually help with my research, but they should make for some distracting reads.

Among the "Interesting website" flakes I've included are the Museum of the History of Science, "Brought to Life" (the Science Museum's History of Medicine website), and an RSS feed for Seed magazine. I chose the first two because a) they are really cool, and b) because the history of science and medicine is closely related to, and an integral part of, the history of natural history museums. Seed magazine is an excellent modern science magazine that has a broad appeal to people who are curious about the world, hence its obvious relationship to the subject of curiosity.

The rest of the content is mostly RSS feeds from blogs, many of which I have either mentioned in previous posts or list in my blogroll. This allows me to keep up with all the new posts, all on one web page. To me, this is the best part of my pageflake; without being able to easily peruse all of my blogs on one page, I might have missed this:

Preserved Giant Squid
Preserved Giant Squid, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph courtesy of Curious Expeditions.

I also get all the latest updates from Bioephemera, which is one of my favorite blogs, such as this article which led me to the "Brought to Life" website. (Not to mention the useful post on how to mail human blood.) I can learn about current projects people are working on, such as Morbid Anatomy's call for private collections for a photographic exhibit, and curiosity cabinet-related events or gatherings (most of which seem to be in New York or London, unfortunately for me.)

While most of the information I've compiled on my Pageflake is definitely pertinent to my topic, most of it is more entertaining than it is academic. I've found that books are still the best source of scholarly information about the history of museums, but we all need a distraction from our serious work now and then. And what's more entertaining than a giant preserved squid?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More sources

Some more sources for my bibliography:


Attenborough, David et al. Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery. London: Royal Collection, 2007.


A book of illustrations of nature from the late 15th to early 18th century, accompanied by essays. The illustrations are stunningly beautiful, and demonstrate a careful attention to the details of natural specimens. These illustrations offers a valuable counterpart to the natural history museums or natural history literature of the time--a different kind of representation of the same objects, and a corollary to the collections being displayed. Natural History museums represent an intergration of art and science, and this book helps convey that idea.


Barrow, Mark. “The Specimen Dealer: Entrepreneurial Natural History in America's Gilded Age.” Journal of the History of Biology 33.3 (2000): 493-534.


This article looks at a rather brief period in American history--from right after the Civil War to the turn of the century--and an interesting niche within the "natural history craze" of the second half of the 19th century. Many natural history societies, and some of the big natural history museums, were founded during this time. The author describes the major changes that were occurring in America at this time which influenced the popular interest in natural history; I'd like to explore this idea further by also understanding the link between what was happening in Europe at the time and what was happening in America. (Possible topic: comparing the popular attitudes and approaches to science, nature and collecting in Europe and America.) The author also offers an interesting reflection on the entrepreneurial spirit as applied to natural history.


Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Recounts both the beginnings of museums in early modern Europe, and of the study of natural history, using Italy as a case study. Findlen discusses two important early naturalists, Ulisse Aldrovandi (famous for his extensive curiosity cabinets) and Athnasius Kircher. A discourse on the importance of collecting and displaying natural objects during the Rennaisance, and how museums were created in an attempt to make sense of the influx of new and foreign objects to Europe. Findlen explains in detail the shifting views of natural history, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. I particularly like this quote, which serves to create a historical context for the early collections:

While we perceive the museum of natural history to be alternately a research laboratory or a place of public education, they [the early collectors] understood it to be a repository of the collective imagination of their society.
Impey, O. R. Oliver R et al. The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press, 1985.

I haven't been able to obtain a copy of this book yet, but I think it would be extremely useful for my research and sounds like it's exactly what I'm looking for.

Mullaney, Steven. “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance.” Representations No. 3 (1983). 7 Mar 2009 <http://wf2dnvr11.webfeat.org/>.

Mullaney depicts the wunderkammern or wonder cabinets of the late Renaissance as emblems of the spirit of collection during that time. He argues that these collections were not the forerunners of natural history museums, as they represented a completely different impulse; while the wonder cabinet was a random, disordered display of anything strange or marvellous, museums represented the attempt to order, categorize, and explain natural phenomenon. This article offers a thorough exploration of the Renaissance desire for strange things, although it only focuses on wonder cabinets in the first section.

Monday, March 2, 2009

An Annotated Bibliography

I will be working on a research paper over the next month, relating to natural history museums. It's a broad topic, and I haven't decided what I'm going to focus on yet. There are so many categories: natural history itself and the history of science; the precursors to modern natural history museums (wunderkammer and curiosity cabinets); modern museums and all their incarnations, from revered institutions like the AMNH, to small quirky locales like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, to historical anomalies like La Specola, to meta-museums which may only exist online or in books, like Museum of Dust or The Museum at Purgatory; the science of categorizing nature, taxonomy, and evolution; the physical aspects of collections, like taxidermy and display...the list goes on and on. It seems like the more sources I read, the more my interests expand. I will be attempting to hone in on a research topic from amongst all of these options.

For now, I am compiling an annotated bibliography to organize and keep track of my sources. I'm using a great site/application called Zotero to help me gather the citations. (No, Zotero is not paying me, but I've found it to be an invaluable resource so far and they now have it set up so you can snyc your offline and online libraries.)

Some of my sources:

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

So far this book is my primary source. The organization of the book is a little strange and sometimes frustrating, as the first couple of chapters jump around in time and it's hard to grasp what the point is. But Asma thoroughly researches his subject, and gives a great history of the natural history field of science, including the key players, the theories, and the changing ideas about taxonomy and evolution. He then gets into the evolution of the natural history museums, and looks at some of the modern museums, showing how they are different from one another. He fittingly gives evolution a central role in all of this, and concludes with an examination of the art of museum display. This book gives me most of the foundation and background I need for my subject, while other sources will explore the margins of natural history and museums.

McDougal, Heather. “Cabinet of Wonders: Blogs as Wunderkammern.” <http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/2008/11/blogs-as-wunderkammern.html >.

A post from the excellent blog Cabinet of Wonders. McDougal presents the abstract for a paper she is writing about blogs as wunderkammern, or "the way in which blogs emulate the same kind of exploration/bringing back oddities/presentation as the old Wunderkammern." She focuses on one important difference, however, being that blogs present a conceptual version of the wunderkammer concept. This concept serves as "a metaphor for authenticness and a sense of wonder", she explains, and it is appropriate for a metaphorical concept to be found in the metaphorical medium of blogs. Blogging represents a kind of display of one's personal taxonomy, one's unique view of the world, just like the original wunderkammern. She discusses how the networking that occurs through blogs is akin to the creation of greater wunderkammern, and the collapse of top-down authority in the Web 2.0 atmosphere encourages the "personal taxonomies" that ensue.


McDougal, Heather. “Cabinet of Wonders: Wunderkammern vs. Cabinets of Curiosity.” <http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/2008/01/wunderkammern-vs-cabinets-of-curiosity.html >.

Another blog post from Cabinet of Wonders. This is McDougal's review of an article in Cabinet Magazine by Celeste Olalquiaga, about the historical differences between Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Curiosity. I didn't realize there was a difference until finding this immensely informative article. Turns out, the differences were important, and signify a transition from rich people collecting cool stuff just because they liked it, to a more scientific practice of cataloging and seeking to understand and classify nature. This shift followed the paradigm shift from experiencing awe towards nature and seeing the multitude of forms as evidence of God's grandeur, to wanting to understand and organize, and thus control, the mysteries of nature. Based on this article, I could see using this transition from Wunderkammern to Curiosity Cabinets as a potential research topic. The blog post is a review of the actual article though, so I would have to refer to the article itself for more information.

Kimmelman, Michael. “Critic's Notebook; Museums Built on the Passion to Collect . . . Anything.” New York Times. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C06E1DB113FF937A3575AC0A96E958260&sec=travel&pagewanted=print >.

This article is more about collectors and collections than it is about museums, but it has some interesting observations and useful information about wunderkammern. He discusses the cultural/social aspects of the original wunderkammern and the transition to the more scientific curiosity cabinets. On the curiosity cabinets, he notes that
"Wonderment came to be perceived as a kind of middle state between ignorance and knowledge, and wonder cabinets were theaters of the marvelous, museums of accumulated curiosities, proving God's ingenuity."
And then, the transition to modern museums:
"Partly it was a desire for a more methodical approach to collected objects that ushered in a new age of museums two centuries ago. Museums began to specialize. The balance tipped from delight toward instruction. The new museums set out to categorize things, to create order out of the world, or at least to imply that there is an order. Descartes said that too much wonder can ''pervert the use of reason.'' This was the age of Descartes."
He explores some of the more "marvelous" museums, proving that the spirit of wonder has not died.

Staab, Nancy. “Right Now - "Wonder Cabinets.” Harvard Magazine. <http://harvardmagazine.com/1998/07/right.wonder.html >.

A review of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Zone Books, 1998), by Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston. Unfortunately I haven't been able to locate the book, or anything by the authors. The authors of the book both have Ph.D.s in the History of Science. This article, similar to Kimmelman's, also explores the wonder cabinets of old. Staab talks about the cultural and historical underpinnings of the wonder cabinets and the transition away from wonder, towards cold hard science, with its organization and laws. Similar treatment as Kimmelman's but this article has more to offer, and goes into more depth on the history of science, namely the transition from Medieval to Rennaisance to Enlightenment. I wish I could get my hands on the book!

Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology. Vintage, 1996.

A look at the bizarre and fascinating Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Weschler does the investigative work into the backgrounds of the displays and information found in the museum; rather than acquiring factual clarification, however, he arrives at a deeper understanding of the "point" of the MJT, which revolves around the creation of a sense of wonder and mystery. The book really shows how the MJT is a modern-day incarnation of the old wonder cabinets as well as the freak shows and such of the 20th century. The museum is more of a commentary and reflection upon natural history museums than it is an actual museum. Weschler expands from the MJT to a meditation on museums in general and their significance in our culture.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mystery and Awe

In The Awe of Natural History Collections , a recent article in Seed magazine, Carl Zimmer explores the secret world that lies beyond the public's view at the American Museum of Natural History. His first visit behind the scenes left him "staring like a gob-smacked tourist," amazed at the vast collections hidden behind secret doors and in drawers and cabinets. "A natural history museum is really two museums," he says, "and when you're in one of them, you can hardly imagine the other."

I'm reminded of my own sense of awe when first entering this other world, when I started working at a natural history museum. I felt so privileged and lucky to take the elevator up past the 2nd floor, to the "Staff Only" floors, and gaze upon the wonders therein. My first day, as I approached the Paleontology department, I was greeted by five
people pushing a massive whale pelvis through the double doors; this was just an example of the type of quirky and unexpected encounters which regularly occur in a day on the job. What most people who visit natural history museums don't realize is that most of the collections are stored backstage, and are not displayed for the public. A museum's purpose may seem to be to educate and entertain the public, but much of a museum's role is in research and the collection and preservation of natural specimens.

On occasion, I find it necessary to make a foray into what the museum staff call "The Bog," an exhibit hall which once housed "The Bog People" but is now used for storage for the Paleontology department. It is filled with all manner of fossil casts, models, actual fossils (some
were collected in the 30s and 40s and are still wrapped in the original
newspaper), and a wide assortment of detritus. The Bog is dimly lit, cavernous, dusty, and deathly quiet; once you unlock the door, step inside, and close it behind you, it feels as if you've entered a tomb. The first thing you see, as your eyes adjust to the dark, is an old, 7-foot-tall dinosaur model, poised as if to attack with its talon-like claws and sharp teeth. I know it's not real, but I can't help thinking about that scene in "Jurassic Park" where the Velociraptors (those weren't really Velociraptors, by the way; Velociraptors were actually the size of small dogs) are stalking the kids, tapping their claws on the metal surfaces. I have to admit, every time I enter The Bog alone, it's scary, but the kind of delicious scare that draws people to horror movies.

Most people who work at natural history museums really like their jobs. It's one of those rare workplaces to which you never get completely accustomed, so that you never take it for granted. It would be hard to do that when you work in an office full of dinosaur bones or stuffed birds, and every day something new and different is being discovered or created. The main reminder for me of what a special job I have, is when I walk through the public parts of the museum to get to my office and see children staring excitedly at the dinosaur mounts. Every day, I get to enter the secret world of treasures behind the scenes, and I haven't lost the sense of awe yet.

Photograph by Justine Cooper; see her beautiful photographs behind the scenes at the AMNH.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Social Bookmarking Comparison

Of all the social bookmarking sites I've used or looked at, Delicious seems to offer the most to my readers. There are many tags related to natural history, museums, wunderkammern, curiosity cabinets, etc. A brief rundown of some of the other sites, and why Delicious is my top choice:
Digg: too random, not relevant enough to my subject matter
Diigo: not enough users yet to offer much on my topics, although I do find Diigo very useful, and the ability to comment upon and highlight articles I read and share my comments with others is a great feature
citeUlike: too academic/technical.
One of the things I like about using Delicious is that it allows me to find great information, websites, articles, and blogs which I wasn't able to find just using a search engine. Delicious creates a network of people sharing all the useful or interesting things they have found on the internet, and it is simple and easy to search through all of it by specifying your subject of interest.

Social Bookmarking Soulmates

At long last! I have found my "social bookmarking soulmate". Her name is Shiralee, and she shares so many of my interests. For this assignment, I searched Delicious and Diigo far and wide for someone who tagged and bookmarked items of similar interest to mine. I searched for "curiosity cabinets", "museums", "science", and "natural history". Finally, after nearly giving up and despairing of ever finding my match, I found Shiralee on Delicious. She bookmarks and tags prodigiously; she has 200 tags and 1,739 bookmarks! Her tags include blogs, books, collections, education, exhibition, history, museum, science, taxidermy, and wunderkammer. Among her massive collection of bookmarks, I found some of the natural history museum-related blogs which I already list on my blogroll, as well as some invaluable sites. One of the gems I found on her bookmarks list is Wunderkammern, a site with lots of information and links related to natural history museums, curiosity cabinets, museum sites, collections, blogs, etc. I can see already that this page will be of great help to me in writing this blog. Another exciting find from her bookmarks is the LiveJournal Wunderkammer. I'm looking forward to continuing my browsing through Shiralee's, and others, bookmarks.
She tags her bookmarks thoroughly, which certainly helps make her many bookmarks accessible. Her Delicious bookmarks would be useful and interesting to anyone who is interested in my blog and its topic. Her interests on Delicious are much broader, but one can find the material they are looking for by clicking on her tags.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blogorama: 1st Assignment

Hello!

Welcome to Curious Cabinets, a blog dedicated to all things related to Natural History Museums. From their beginnings, as curiosity cabinets or wunderkammern in the 17th century—random collections of stuffed, dead natural wonders obtained by the wealthy for the sole purpose of amusement and entertainment—to their modern day incarnations as institutions designed to educated the public, natural history museums have occupied a strange and ambiguous place in human culture. Part science, part art; part morbid curiosity and part medical teaching; education and entertainment; revered center of learning and freak show; these museums, in all their forms, and with all their various purposes, are difficult to define. Even the modern natural history museums with which we are all familiar vary greatly from one to another. For some, a natural history museum means dinosaur bones; for another, it means anatomical anomalies; for another, anthropological relics. In these places our desire for culture and learning mingle with our fascination with the odd and morbid. We visit museums to be educated, and also shocked, grossed out, or entertained.

Allow me to introduce myself; I am primarily a collector, fascinated by all the beautiful and bizarre forms of nature, and a scientist (a paleontologist to be exact). Bones can reveal an amazing amount of information if you know how to read them; 70 million-year-old skeletons buried in the dirt can reveal the mysteries of evolution and our changing planet. I am fortunate to work at a natural history museum and interact with other curious people on a daily basis, but there is much I wish to learn about the history and culture behind these museums; writing this blog will allow me to do so. I am writing this blog for a class I am taking, therefore some of the posts will be writing exercises; I intend to continue the blog after the class has ended.

To me, the one common denominator for all natural history museums, whether a modern institution or a 17th century Italian aristocrat’s curiosity cabinet, is the element of wonder. They inspire us to ponder the natural world and draw new connections between things; the act of collecting and arranging is itself a way of trying to grasp the world. Following this theme of wonder and curiosity, in this blog I will explore the history and evolution of natural history museums. I will take you on a tour of both the popular large institutions such as the Field Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, as well as explore the more bizarre and less well-known, such as La Specola, the Hunterian Museum, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I will trace the history of the natural history museum, the various forms it has taken, and the collections held by the different museums. I will explore related scientific topics such as evolution and taxonomy, as well as techniques of collecting and preserving specimens used through history. Along the way I will leave plenty of room for the mind to wander into dim rooms full of strange objects or follow curious meanderings into the arcane and mysterious. Follow me as I part the curtains onto the strange, marvelous world of the natural history museum.

Blog Profile: Bioephemera

I recently discovered Jessica Palmer's engrossing blog Bioephemera, which contains many delightful “random observations and connections about pretty much everything,” in true curiosity cabinet style. Jessica states in her profile that while her main themes are biology and art, “the trajectory will be roundabout, cephalopods and medievalists lurk in the undergrowth, and you should probably pack a picnic lunch.” She is a 31-year old PhD biologist who taught at a small college for several years before moving to Washington DC to work in science policy and communications. She posts about 2-5 times a week, and appears to have a steady following.

One of my favorite posts (and one of her most popular), which relates quite well with my blog, is “Womb, Waxes and Wonder Cabinets”, about 17th and 18th century dissection models. These models are fascinating, beautiful, and grotesque; apparently they were popular in those times due to the taboos and difficulties associated with procuring cadavers for teaching anatomy. The museum La Specola, in Florence, still displays many of these wax models. The strangely unsettling thing about them is that they look like living people, posed as if for a figure drawing class, but they are in various stages of dissection. One model of a very pregnant woman serenely holds open her own abdominal skin, allowing the viewer a glimpse inside.

Another post I found worthy of note is “The end of an era,” which explains her decision to move her blog to scienceblogs. Her posts are usually fairly short, with information about something that has struck her fancy, with the occasional more lengthy post. She obviously has the authority to cover science-related topics, yet her blog has a more informal tone and subject matter, as if she was conversing with smart and educated friends.

I like the writer’s vision of herself as a “Victorian-style naturalist,” and her varied interests; she doesn’t just write about pure science, but explores the many intersections of science with art, culture, and history. As she explains, “this is my outlet for random observations and connections about pretty much everything,” and that is why I find her blog compatible with mine. I could definitely find inspiration in her posts, whether from the exact subject of a post or the general idea, to stimulate my own writing. My site will differ from hers in that it will be a more focused and sustained study of a specific subject.

While she has her two anchor subjects (science and art), she allows herself the freedom in her blog to explore the many random, interesting things she encounters in the world that may be only loosely related to these subjects, or which connect to those subjects in unique or novel ways. The key here is curiosity and wonder, and I think that’s what lies in the heart of most people who go into science. Science requires inquisitiveness—an avid interest in the world, as well as the determination to follow that interest and explore the object in question. This is what natural history museums are, and have always been, about: pursuing questions and interests by examining, collecting, and describing.

Voice Critique: Museum of Dust

The blog Museum of Dust has a voice, and a sense of character, unlike any other blog. In fact, the blog, or "museum", is written and maintained by several characters: Ms. Incognita de Plume, the "founder and director of MoD"; Master Studley Wilcox-Lusher the III, the "Minister of Defence of MoD"; the anonymous "Head of the Administration", all of whom may or may not actually be the same person. The various voices of the different characters are maintained throughout the blog.

Museum of Dust (MoD) is frequently composed with language similar to that used by a venerable institution. Here, the "What" section of MoD's vision statement:
MoD's activities provide a benchmark for all other museums in the scope of the collection, unique conservation and storage challenges, the provision of public programs, and in its innovative associates program.
This high tone, reminiscent of any well-respected museum's written material, is set in almost surrealistic, post-modern relief, however, by the "Why" section of the vision statement, which explains:
The world needs somewhere that all the dust, shards, fragments and shadows can be gathered, displayed and conserved in an appropriate environment. MoD is laying down a heritage for future generations. History will be our judge.
This strange and unsettling mix of the authoritarian, "museum" voice, combined with the surreal, continues throughout the blog. Reports of the U.S. declaring war on dust are written in the objective, matter-of-fact tone of newspapers. Some posts read more like poetry, such as The Bone Room:: Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology, Musee D'Histoire Naturelle:
For the rest, it is endless vistas of bare gleaming bone. Prehistoric dinosaur bone. Modern bone. Mammel bone and reptile bone. Head bones, hip bones and tiny tiny foot bones. Bones from mega-fauna and bones from tiny marsupials smaller than a teaspoon. Beautiful bones.
The short sentence structure, combined with the repetition, sets a tone of awe for the collected objects, and creates more of a personal quality than the objective, detached, "museum" voice. It seems like there are voices struggling in opposition with one another as they portray the museum: an enthusiastic, emotional child, and a professional, scholarly adult. (I find this combination particularly appealing as it seems to describe my own attitude towards natural history.)

Another post consists of a long sentence, written in German; this contributes to the growing sense of disorientation and confusion, as well as hinting at the world of academia and elitism, in which one is expected to know several languages.

The sense of mystery is continually fostered by the author's word choice; she makes a reference to Flickr by writing, "Buried deep in the shadowy underbelly of picture-sharing community Flickr...", to which one could certainly make a much more boring reference; this description is more in keeping with the mystery of the Museum of Dust. A sense of a real person exists here, because the author uses rich, descriptive, and unique language:
Drab, dull-eyed, stricken, defiant, hopeless, unceasing, split-lip broken-head other person pain. mmmmmmmm.....
Other posts, such as the author's musings on a mysterious character named Inky (aka Inky-Blinky, a spider, Master Studly Wilcox-Lusher the III), contain more informal language, and self-references. There are even posts, such as Publicity:: Newsflash, in which she rages about supposed goings-on within the museum and its staff:
And what happens? They start the campaign – no launch, no fanfare, NOTHING – in the Oubliette! The OUBLIETTE!!! Well, that was obvious insubordination. And then consider the patronising, not to mention dishonest, rubbish scrawled on it! And then to cap it all off, that nasty snide little caption. They hate me. They’re trying to demoralize and destabilize me. I suspect they’re Fifth Columnists. Maybe even Musrum’s Fellow Travellers.
The writer really builds a character (several characters, actually) by revealing her/their thoughts and emotions, in addition to the more official museum postings.

The content of the blog posts varies, from memos about upcoming staff meetings, clips of artworks or museum displays, pseudo news items, and of course, posts about dust.

Thanks to all of these compelling voice techniques and experimental forms of writing, Museum of Dust makes for a delightful, surprising, and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mind and Body: The Physical Effects of Meditation

This is about my classmate Roo's blog, Mind and Body. First, I'd like to start by drawing a parallel between my topic and Roo's blog topic: we both look at connections between seemingly distant things. I look at connections between history, culture, science, and art; she seeks
to find a connection between meditation and physiology and explore the health benefits of meditating.
On a personal note, I'm also interested in her topic because I do yoga and regularly experience the mind/body connection and the meditative and relaxing effects of encouraging that connection. Roo is taking a more scientific approach to this subject in her blog, which I find more valid and trustworthy than the spiritual explanation often found for these subjects. She seems qualified to take such an approach, as she is studying Psychology, and will probably put more reliance on scientific studies than anecdotal evidence. I find her introduction encouraging:
I will identify the positive effects of meditation related to metabolism, the autonomic and central nervous systems, and the endocrine system. I will research and discuss the biological processes that underlie these effects.
I like how she thinks like a scientist, looking for evidence before claiming a causal relationship:
I would like to find out if meditation produces health benefits directly, or if it does so indirectly via increased psychological functioning.
I'm also interested to see what she finds out.

Her writing style is smart, clear, sophisticated, and well-matched to the subject matter (since she is looking at these issues from a scientific/medical standpoint, she uses a more academic writing style). Also, she is clearly doing her research, as she cites information she has found and provides links.

After reading her blog, I am more interested in meditation and its benefits, as well as curious about the physiological explanations for its benefits. Thanks Roo!