Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

April 1st, 2011 | Meera

How do you stuff a human for display? Does one remove the innards, and if so, how is it accomplished? Is the stuffing made of cotton, hay, or what?

—Stephen T. Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

2011.8. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (Stephen T. Asma)

The really lovely thing about acquiring a reputation for being interested in certain sorts of things is that eventually you start to get the right kinds of presents. When I was visiting Sarah in February, she handed me a beautifully wrapped box containing, among other things, this book. I cracked the spine on it as soon as I sat down in the airport waiting room on my way home and finished it over several sessions on the elliptical machine (I read at the gym not because I’m too sexy-smart to plug into their TVs or my iPod, but because I can’t stand getting sweat all over my headphones.)

My verdict? Mixed.

I won’t say Asma’s book isn’t well named, but in spirit it is governed far more by its staid and scholarly subtitle than its deliciously black title. The book opens marvelously, with two early anecdotes setting an inquisitive tone: In one, Asma describes the awful fate of an Inuit man who followed polar explorer Robert Peary back from the Arctic to take up a job as a living specimen in the American Museum of Natural History, only to die of tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to his son, who had also made the trip, “museum staff removed Qisuk’s flesh, cleaned his bones, and put him on display for New York audiences.” In the other, the author writes of his fascination with Foma, a boy with only two digits on each hand and foot. Foma lived for years in Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, and when he died, he was stuffed and put back under glass.

Gripped by the need to know how such a feat of preservation might be accomplished, Asma sets off on a viscerally fueled investigation into wet and dry preservation techniques, including taxidermy—but is soon drawn into a more academic analysis of the role that natural history museums play as both artifacts and architects of scientific epistemology. I would have been happier if he’d spent a little more time answering his initial questions about specimen preservation, especially since his discussion of how animals are processed when they come into a museum isn’t very nuanced. He says, for instance, that each one is first skinned and then skeletonized before it can be mounted for display—but with birds, you actually have to make a choice between preserving the skin or skeleton, since certain bones must stay in the skin for structural support if you’re going to stuff it. And he describes the taxidermy process as if it’s something that happens only one particular way, whereas in fact there are many choices and innovations individual taxidermists can and do make.

I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who make the experience of going into the dermestid room sound unrelentingly lurid. I mean, it’s an astonishing place for many reasons. Some people find it hard. But really, I think Asma is reaching when he calls its smell “the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine,” and a “fetid odor, sweet and sour in a nauseatingly pungent combination.” He sticks in “gory” and “repulsive” while he’s at it.

These are, in truth, fairly trivial criticisms. All the questions Asma asks interest me—How exactly are biological specimens preserved? Why should we pay close attention to the processes by which scientists come to “know” what they “know”? In what ways do museum exhibits reflect the biases and intentions of their creators?—and he attacks them with an infectious and amiable spirit of adventure. There were many sections in which I was transported by his detailed visual descriptions of particular exhibits. And though there were equally many where I found myself dragged down by the slow and somewhat plodding formation of an argument, the arguments themselves were usually fascinating.

In particular, anyone interested in questions of classification will be held by Asma’s discussion of the differences between the curatorial decisions made by the 18th-century natural philosophers Georges Cuvier and John Hunter. Hunter, for instance, had a habit of arranging specimens according to similarity of function, without regard to animal groups. In one armoire, designed to demonstrate how Nature deals with the problem of digestion, Hunter placed:

“parts analogous to teeth in invertebrates,” including parts of parasitic worms, cicadas, locusts, Roman snails, slugs, cuttlefishes, and squids; then “parts analogous to teeth in birds,” including the beaks of vultures, woodpeckers, and puffins; then two shelves devoted to “true” teeth, including those of lions (“teeth composed of bone and enamel”) and those of horses and elephants (“composed of ivory, enamel, and cementum”).

These choices, Asma explains, reflected Hunter’s tendency to abstract traits from organisms. In this case, the concept of dentition was “excerpted,” as he puts it, from the individual animals and the ways in which these animals lived in the world. By contrast, Cuvier—who was Hunter’s contemporary but held vastly different ideas about how one ought to go about organizing knowledge about species—would almost certainly have placed each of Hunter’s teeth and psuedo-teeth in its own case, arranged together with other parts of the same organism. Asma sums up Cuvier’s approach as one that relates:

the parts of an organism to each other and to specific environmental conditions of existence. So the lungs of whales, for example, have a real causal relationship with the other anatomical parts of whales (trachea, blowhole, circulation system, etc.) and with the needs and demands of its aquatic environment. But there is no causal relationship with other animals that have lungs.

Over the course of 300 pages, Asma roams through seven different natural history museums in three different countries, including my beloved Hunterian, which I saw last September and which has colored my dreams ever since. He interviews curators and collections managers, gets lost in dimly lit halls and back rooms, and everywhere examines what he sees with the eye of an artist, a philosopher, and a lover of science. I get the impression he would not be unhappy to be considered a kind of rakish explorer of the macabre, and that Stuffed Animals is intended to be as much travelogue as thesis. (Hence the dramatic description of the bug room.)

In this, Asma does not quite succeed—what he has written, although more palatable than any academic work I have ever read, is a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid—not exactly dissertation, not exactly popular science. In a way, the in-between is an apt space for this book to occupy, given the author’s fascination with teratology, the study of “monsters” and “hybrids” (otherwise known as creatures with congenital abnormalities). But to my everlasting regret, Asma never does tell us just how Foma of the “lobster claw” deformity might have been preserved.

P.S. This is where I tell you that The Open Lab 2010 has gone on sale! I have an essay in it, but every piece it contains is really a delight and you should read them all online, even if you don’t want to buy a copy. But if you are lovely and do want to support the tireless efforts of the book’s two amazing editors, you can get it as either a paperback or a PDF here.

4 Responses to “Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads”

  1. Sarah says:

    Many congrats on publication!

    I’m glad the book had redeeming qualities; you tapped into the concerns I had when I looked through it. I’m amused that the issues of organization are the same ones I’m studying in my MLIS courses. How does one classify things properly (“properly” being subjective) so that “proper” relationships are conveyed? Collections always bear the fingerprints of those who assembled them.

    • Meera says:

      It was really fascinating! Nothing (except your pancake recipe) is perfect. I look forward to seeing your fingerprints all over libraries everywhere.

  2. Jessica says:

    I agree very much with your analysis of this book. I was so intrigued by the title, but it fell a little short of my expectations. I would recommend Richard Fortey’s “Dry Storeroom #1.” This was truly a delightful book about what goes on behind the scenes in a museum!