Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blogorama: Revised


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.

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