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.


  1. I think you'd find 'Devices of Wonder' by the Maria Barbara Stafford interesting and useful -- she also curated an exhibition by the same name. Another of her books looks at scientific illustration and parlor magic as part of that transition from 'wonders' to 'curiosities'

    Also the Paula Findlen book 'Possessing Nature' might also be helpful

  2. Thanks again; you have so much useful information! I've started on Findlen's book and will look for Stafford's. I love how research begins with a vague interest in a subject, and you get drawn in to a world of knowledge you never knew existed.

  3. Very welcome! And I know what you mean -- my entire (personal) research over the last 10 years has been entirely due to stumbling over and becoming fascinated by 'Tulipmania' -- which led me to 'Gentlemen Collectors' and the world of the personal museum... also Dutch still lifes, ottoman architecture and Constantinople, and Hapsburg politics ...