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Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads:
The Culture of Natural History Museums

by Stephen T. Asma

ISBN 0195130502 / 9780195130508 / 0-19-513050-2
Publisher Oxford University Press, USA
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Science museums can be illuminating, exciting, and disturbing--just like the collectors that make them possible. In Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums Scholar Stephen T. Asma turns his professional curiosity about preserving bodies into an engrossing, wide-ranging exploration of the nature of these places and their curators. He brings a refreshing vitality to a subject usually thought boring, if not morbid. Asma's writing ranges from expositive to chatty and occasionally feels like a travelogue or memoir as he investigates the American Museum of Natural History, the Galerie d'anatomie comparée, and other collections in the US and Europe; this informality keeps the reader engaged throughout. Referring to the process of skeletonising specimens--while maintaining his hold on all but the most sensitive--he writes:

I stepped into the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine ... Inside each tank were thousands of dermestid beetles, otherwise known as flesh-eating beetles, blissfully chewing the meaty chunks and strands off the bones. Each bug was no bigger than a watermelon seed, but en masse they could strip a skeleton clean in two short days.
To Asma's credit, the bulk of the text is less a gross-out festival than a consideration of the hard, sometimes obsessive work of the men and women behind the displays. He examines the role of museums and collectors in the great evolutionary debates of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the future of these institutions as they come more and more to depend on corporate largesse. Equally enlightening and entertaining, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads is a perfectly exhibited specimen. --Rob Lightner [via]