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Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums [Paperback]

by Stephen T. Asma
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2003 0195163362 978-0195163360 1
The natural history museum is a place where the line between "high" and "low" culture effectively vanishes--where our awe of nature, our taste for the bizarre, and our thirst for knowledge all blend happily together. But as Stephen Asma shows in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, there is more going on in these great institutions than just smart fun.
Asma takes us on a wide-ranging tour of natural history museums in New York and Chicago, London and Paris, interviewing curators, scientists, and exhibit designers, and providing a wealth of fascinating observations. We learn how the first museums were little more than high-toned side shows, with such garish exhibits as the pickled head of Peter the Great's lover. In contrast, today's museums are hot-beds of serious science, funding major research in such fields as anthropology and archaeology.
"Rich in detail, lucid explanation, telling anecdotes, and fascinating characters.... Asma has rendered a fascinating and credible account of how natural history museums are conceived and presented. It's the kind of book that will not only engage a wide and diverse readership, but it should, best of all, send them flocking to see how we look at nature and ourselves in those fabulous legacies of the curiosity cabinet."--The Boston Herald.

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Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums + Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy + The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy
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Editorial Reviews Review

Science museums can be illuminating, exciting, and disturbing--just like the collectors that make them possible. Scholar Stephen T. Asma turned his professional curiosity about preserving bodies into an engrossing, wide-ranging exploration of the nature of these places and their curators. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums brings a refreshing vitality to a subject usually thought boring, if not morbid. Asma's writing ranges from expositive to chatty, and it 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 U.S. and Europe. This informality keeps the reader engaged throughout. Referring to the process of skeletonizing 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 fest 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Artfully posed human skeletons and "monster" fetuses in jars are the stuff of Stephen T. Asma's fascinating Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. A professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities at Chicago's Columbia College, Asma (Buddha for Beginners) dissects and catalogues his extensive research in this rigorous, entertaining work of cultural criticism. He investigates the history of "acceptable" scientific practice and affords philosophical insight into the scientific and human impulse to categorize: "To have a concept... is to have its negation already in tow.... There is a class of things called `dog,' and there is a class of things (quite substantial, in fact) that are `not-dog.'... Language and thought cannot really function without this most basic tool for carving up reality." Photos and illus.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (May 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195163362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195163360
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #424,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar.

Asma is the author of seven books, including "Against Fairness" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012), "On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears" (Oxford Univ. Press), "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads" (Oxford Univ. Press), "The Gods Drink Whiskey" (HarperOne), and the best selling "Buddha for Beginners" (originally published in 1996 and reissued in 2008). His writing has been translated into German, Spanish, Hebrew, Czech, Romanian, Hindi, Portuguese, and Chinese.

Asma has written for the New York Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Beast, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, the Fortnightly Review, and Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Asma is a founding Fellow of the "Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture" at Columbia College Chicago. The Research Group is actively working on a philosophical and scientific understanding of the mind/brain that properly incorporates the emotional dimensions of mammalian consciousness.

In addition to Western philosophy, Asma has an abiding interest in Buddhism and Confucianism. In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, teaching a "Buddhist Philosophy" seminar course as part of their Graduate Program in Buddhist Studies. In addition to Cambodia, he has also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. He has also lived and studied in Shanghai China.

Asma has lectured at Harvard, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Newberry Library, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and many more.

His website is:

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mummies, Museums, and Metaphysics April 22, 2001
If you do not want to know the nuts and bolts (or rather, the knives and molds) of the craft of taxidermy, but you want to know about why people might be interested in such an activity, what happens to their exhibits in museums, how museums express cultural and scientific philosophy, and how we come to categorize the biology that fills our world, then Stephen T. Asma's _Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums_ (Oxford University Press) will do nicely. It is an amusing ramble through museums, but since Asma is a professor of philosophy, it veers through much larger ideas.
Asma obviously likes museums, and he has gained entrance to the back rooms denied to other mortals. He is delighted to report his findings, such as the dermestid beetle room at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. These beetles, held in a stinky sealed room that has a door like a submarine hatch, swarm over the skinned bodies of specimens, literally gnawing them to the bone in a couple of days. He has interviewed curators and exhibition designers, and has them explain what they are trying to accomplish in their exhibits. But they may not know; how a display is arranged depends on scientific and social philosophy which varies from time to time and from nation to nation, and may be covert. Louis Agassiz displayed human racial artifacts at Harvard to emphasize that races were different, having been separately and specially created, rather than showing the continuity of human descent. The natural history museum in England have exhibits that emphasize Darwin, but the French hardly mention him. The Americans will have the most modern philosophy of taxonomy.
Comfortable with including Plato, James, Wittgenstein and others from his own field, Asma gives a wide-ranging discussion of epistemological issues that is academic but is never stuffy and never loses its sense of fun.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bizarre and Brilliant! February 25, 2004
By A Customer
This is an excellent and provocative book. Asma ranges widely, but also deeply, over the relatively uncharted territory of museum practices and theories --some mainstream and others quirky and idiosyncratic. One of the great virtues of the book is that it consciously avoids the typical postmodern cultural studies lingo that most of the other recent museum books invoke. This is clear and thoughtful analysis of the tradition of natural history collecting --analysis that brings us face to face with oddball curators like Peale and Hunter. But it also connects the older forms of edutainment (early taxidermy, etc.) with the more contemporary and controversial forms (Hollywood-type displays of dinosaurs, etc.). Two other important aspects of the book are scarcely mentioned in the promo blurbs, but they make for fascinating reading. One, is a fresh, if ocassionally dense, tour of European scientific classification theory --a philosophically important and often ignored area. And two, a powerful argument for evolution theory as against creationism and the increasingly popular "intelligent design" theory. Great writing and very intelligent!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy masquerading as cultural analysis February 19, 2013
Unfortunately, I find that Stephen Asma is writing more for his philosophy students than for even erudite readers. He teases with an interesting story from the humanistic side of what goes on in a museum; his own experiences and a description of the displays or the fascinating people who developed the collections, and then continues with an acknowledgement that such things ARE interesting, but before we can truly appreciate them we need to know the entire history of taxonomy. This is a system he uses repeatedly in his writing: "Before we can make sense of what is laid out in Cuvier's gallery, it is important to excavate some of the history of classification. And before we dig in this direction, it is of paramount importance to examine why we classify things at all" (pg 83). Which is fine. But then he goes into about 150 pages of explaining taxonomy, which is hardly worth the three interesting sentences he devoted to the actual museum he was describing. There were several paragraphs that made the book exceedingly difficult to get through, such as this one from page 187:

"Some systematists, including both cladists and pheneticists, remain so resolutely phenomenalist in their approach that they are uninterested in any evolutionary inferences. Cladists and pheneticists are really just trying to construct the most parsimonious arrangement of empirical data. But many evolution-minded biologists seek to establish the genealogical underpinnings for these parsimonious arrangements. If we take a pluralistic approach, incorporating aspects of the different systematics schools and evolutionary biology, we can try to reconstruct the evolutionary trajectory of certain organic structures.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blew my mind. September 10, 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Highly recomended. I loved reading this. It gave insights into so many things I never thought of before such as the embalming process. A great work with expert diction and a great layout.
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