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

3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  197 ratings  ·  23 reviews
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 wid
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published April 5th 2001 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2001)
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If I have ever read a book that struck such an elegant balance between philosophical inquiry and sordid fascination with the grotesque as Stephen Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, I certainly don't remember it. Asma's exploration of the evolution of modern-day natural history museums, from their primitive ancestors the medieval bestiaries, through Renaissance curiosity cabinets and the private, Enlightenment-era collections of proto-scientists, is perceptive and thought-provoking at ever ...more
In this book, Asma examines the history and philosophy of natural history museums. Using six museums as his main case studies, he explores the history of taxidermy and exhibit design, and then moves into the heady area of the assumptions and agendas of museum curators -- for example, how evolution and natural selection are dealt with, and how whole wings and museums are organized and designed.

For the most part, this is a well-written interesting read. At times, he does get a little bogged down
Mackenzie Brooks
This was a good book even though it took me a long time to read. I liked the museumy parts more than the biology parts.
Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads; The Culture and
Evolution of Natural History Museums. 1st ed.,. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001. Isbn: 0-19-516336-2 (pbk.)

Stephen T. Asma, PH.D. is a Professor of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Columbia College Chicago . His area of Specialization includes Philosophy (ancient and modern) and History of Life sciences, Eastern Philosophy ( esp. Buddhism), Religion and Science, Philosophy of Religion, Museum Studies, Metaphy
Danielle T
SAaPH has been on my to-read list for quite a while (because there's only so many books available to a popular audience about preserving dead things in an academic setting), so when I saw it at a used bookstore had to jump on it. Until I started it, I didn't realize Asma was a philosophy professor which means a different perspective than other books on museology (such as Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum, by a trilobite specialist at the NHM in ...more
Coming from a zoo history background, this book was a lot of fun. It is amusing how natural history museums and zoos face basically the same challenges in exhibiting their collections (if not in the day-to-day upkeep). The book starts off with Asma's hilarious setup to how he became interested in studying the practical and cultural aspects of natural history museums, which alone makes the book worth reading. The museums themselves are then somewhat sidelined for the majority of the book as he ex ...more
I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I think it's a fascinating analysis of the rhetoric of natural history museums -- how the organization of the exhibit, what the curator chooses to include or exclude and how the exhibit is displayed influences the viewer. Museums as persuasion! I think that Asma's writing style is very engaging as well. I normally don't read much science writing (this is my husband's book -- although I guess it's marital property), but I found it accessable with ...more
I had sort of a mixed experience with "Stuffed Animals"—I was expecting something to focus much more closely on the origins and changing purpose of natural history museums, which was perhaps an idea I got from the title. In fact, the book is much more general, and offers a survey of the last three or four hundred years of natural philosophy, biology, taxonomy, teratology, comparative anatomy, and the study of evolution, along with an abbreviated but not uninformed account of the culture and evol ...more
The title really grabbed me on this one. I am an avid museum-goer and was interested in the author's premise- how did Natural History museums get to be the instituations they are today? Asma writes this conversational book extremely well. He is often as surprised as you as he finds new people to interview and unveils the next phase of history. There were many times I would be thinking "wow that is crazy" and literally the next sentence would be "I know sounds crazy doesn't it". A background in e ...more
I'm trying, with limited success, to research the origins of the Natural History museum--the wunsterkammers and similar of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This book looked fairly promising, and started fairly promisingly, but unfortunately veered somewhat aside after the first chapters. As I should probably have suspected of a book written by a philosophy professor, it spent a lot of time exploring the "philosophy" and theory behind modern museum displays--which might have been a l ...more
I wanted to read this book after reading about it in Still Life, a book about taxidermy. I thought it was going to be more about the museums and how they operate, their history and the people who made them happen. While to a certain extent some of this is true, I found myself crazy bored by descriptions of Darwinian evolution, taxonomy, classificatory systems, and complicated histories of scientists and theorists. Ugh. The parts describing Asma's research, fun side facts, and much of the strange ...more
I loved this book! Asma has a gift for words and takes what could be a really dry (put me to sleep) subject (taxonomies) and makes it interesting. Although he focuses on natural history museums, I could also see many parallels with the library world. Also lots of oddities and curiosities within ... I recently got to see the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. This is one of the collections discussed in the book.
The title of this book is misleading. The book appears to be sensational. Instead with the exception of a few facts, it is a philosophical history of museum display which, once that is figured out, is a very good book. I believe it's audience is rather limited but for those who are interested in museums and how they work it is well worth a read.
At its best when close reading natural history museums, particularly the politics and biases of the curators, but sometimes the science (and science history) was too much for me. That said, the fact that the same battles surrounding metaphysics and evolution, between fact and conjecture, are still being fought is shocking and saddening.
It started out well with an interesting discussion of the history of natural history museums, but quickly degenerated into a "Philosophy of the Modern Natural History Display". Imagine combining a rambling philosophy thesis with a biology textbook and you're heading towards this book. Not what I'd hoped for at all.
A mildly interesting journey through the intellectual underpinnings of museums, from the first curiosity cabinets of the Enlightenment, through to the gigantic complexes of today. The idea of how museums are the intersection of art and science is an interesting little thought.
This is much more meaty that I thought it would be, and all the more enjoyable for that. Asma explores taxonomy, curiosity cabinets, evolution & creationism (and how scientists - and the Pope - try to reconcile the two) and reflects on what these things say about us.
Any book where you run around the house looking for someone with whom to share the fascinating tidbit you just read is a good book. I did this a lot. I also laughed and kept saying 'oh wow' a lot. The writing style reminds me a lot of Simon Winchester.
This book has a lot of fascinating stuff in it, but even as someone very interested in the subject, I bogged down a bit in the middle. Unfortunatey, like many academic books, this one lacks a great sense of pacing. Still, a worthwhile read!
the study endocrinology began in the intestine of a rooster.
Fantastic book. Culture influences everything.
Anna marked it as to-read
Nov 23, 2015
Tj Mclachlan
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  • Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum
  • The Rarest of the Rare: The Stories Behind the Harvard Museum of Natural History
  • The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing
  • Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
  • The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy
  • Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History
  • Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World
  • Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
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  • The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
  • Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology
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Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar.

He is the author of "Against Fairness" (University of Chicago Press).

In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. There he taught "Buddhist Philosophy" as part of their pilot Graduate Program in Buddhist Studies. His book, en
More about Stephen T. Asma...

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