Sunday, March 29, 2009


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:

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.


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


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?


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?


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?


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 <>.

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.” < >.

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.” < >.

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. < >.

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. < >.

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.