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Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. --Walter Benjamin

When was the last time you visited your local natural history museum -- and what do you remember from your visit? Was it dimly lit and full of amazing fossils and artfully done habitat scenes with large African animals? Was it bright and shiny with interactive exhibits, videos, and dramatically posed dinosaurs? Did you ever doubt the authenticity or truth of something you saw there? Did you learn anything about indigenous cultures? Did you learn a story or a folktale? Did it have that "dusty old museum-like atmosphere" (as one college student in a museum methods course recently put it)?

Working in one of these institutions affords me plenty of opportunities for learning, teaching, and pondering. Today's museums serve many functions. Most of them are familiar: research, display, classification, and education. These functions are so much a part of our assumptions about natural history collections that it's hard to imagine that they were ever absent. Modern museums can be temples to the authority of Science, forums for ethnic festivals or community gatherings, or even competition for Disneyland. They are public places that we visit to help us create order and sense out of nature, to be amazed, to learn something in particular, to ponder the complexity of the world around us.

I collected things, and stories about things, as a child: ornate little boxes, seashells, coins, and leaves. I pored over fantasy books that took me on imaginary journeys, but even more over the monsters of Greek mythology and medieval bestiaries. I loved the stories, anecdotes, and fables in these books and things. Now, part of my job is to help write and critique labels for natural history exhibits. What meanings do animals have? What stories should we tell?

For that habitat scene of the African lion, we will certainly include information on the geographical range of the animal, its diet and behavior, its habitat. If the exhibit text has been redone in the past twenty years or so, it is bound to include something about the dwindling number of this endangered species due to habitat destruction, and what efforts are underway to reverse the decline. It may even include a history of the particular lions on display, noting specifically that they were collected seventy-five years ago, or that they died at the zoo of natural causes. But will the label include the lion as the symbol of courage? Will the label discuss the significance of the lion to the nearby cultures of Africa? Will it include poetry and literature and history and fables about the lion? One of the defining differences between traditional natural history exhibits and the medieval bestiaries and collections that inspired me as a child is that these older forms always seem to contain these latter tidbits and associations, whereas most natural history exhibits currently do not. Why not?

Frankly, I miss the magical journeys these stories can evoke. When our museum docents tell visiting schoolchildren that early settlers, finding mastodon skulls with large frontal holes in them, thought they were the remains of a cyclops, their small eyes still open wide. When was the cultural context of living things (or any other things) excised from what we consider science? I am not so sure that this excision is such a good thing for science or for culture -- I might prefer the term "amputation." Is there any possibility of reclaiming this context, and the wonder that surrounds it, without descending into superstition and mythology?

To find out, it might be useful to journey back in time a bit. People have been collecting and displaying natural objects (and stories about them) for a very long time. As Benjamin implies above, collections of objects have always been storehouses of the ideas we impose upon them, much like the imposition of a picture of a bear or a spoon on the constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). Even in modern museums, the same African artifact might become a work of art, an example of woodworking, an exotic curio, or a religious symbol, depending upon how it is displayed, and what other objects surround it.1 The question "what's that?" is easy to ask but deceptively difficult to answer, because it often means "what's important about that?" Collections of natural and cultural objects can therefore tell us a great deal about the way we see the relationship between human beings and the natural world. For example, the fact that we separate fable, anecdote, history, and poetry so completely from scientific description tells us a good deal about our value for scientific or objective truth.

Power and Miracles in the Middle Ages

It should not be surprising that the objects we collect, their meanings to us, the ways we display them, and the emotions and ideas that these displays evoke have all undergone many changes. Can you imagine a collection of natural objects completely unconcerned with science, research, or education? They were not so uncommon in the Middle Ages. As early as the 4th century C.E., Saint Augustine enumerates a host of natural curiosities in De Civitate Dei. He describes Mount Etna, the incorruptibility of peacock meat, the amazing qualities of magnets, the hardness of diamonds. He goes on to argue that it is impossible to distinguish the commonplace from the miraculous among these natural phenomena, since all of these things are manifestations of the divine will. His point? He was trying to convince his reader that, if the miraculous is so commonplace, it was conceivable that God could make sinners burn forever without being consumed. Augustine was using natural phenomena to support the existence of miracles in Hell!2

Augustine advocated a familiarity with the particularities of nature as a path to understanding the metaphors of scripture. The anomalies of nature were particularly invaluable to his rhetoric, dealing as it did with belief in the power of God. Later, medieval collections of natural objects followed the Augustinian model, using them to invoke wonder and power. The unicorn horns, crocodiles, and griffin claws of the medieval church collections were objects of sacred power, often with special healing or purifying properties. They also represented a more secular kind of power: the wealth and influence of the abbey or church where the collection was housed.

These natural wonders were compiled in endlessly fascinating and popular herbals, bestiaries, and lapidaries describing vegetable, animal, and mineral mirabilia respectively, as well as more common sights. The descriptions of these objects, interestingly, focus more on metaphor, adage, fable, and moral lesson than on observable characteristics. According to one 13th-century bestiary, the breath of the panther is so sweet that "when the other animals hear his voice they gather from far and near, and follow him wherever he goes . . . Thus our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther, descended from heaven and saved us from the power of the devil."3 What a contrast to the lion exhibit we started with! Our lion has become a magical beast who teaches by parable.

The Separation of History from Natural History

But, you may now say, as charming as these stories are, they are all about rather superstitious popular religion, not science. Did later, more scientific texts and collections contain similar associations? Most certainly, they did, and some still do. However, modern historians of science have often ignored these stories, thinking them quaint and naive, but of no real use in describing the "progress" of science.

During the Renaissance, many authors published histories of animals and plants, filled with emblems and adages to delight the reader, and to teach about the animals. One of the most widely read was Conrad Gesner's Historia Animalium, published in Zurich during the 1550s. Gesner was a great naturalist, and one of the first to use illustrations to help readers recognize the objects he described.

Gesner's 16-page chapter on foxes, as described by William Ashworth,4 provides us with a good example of the conceptual framework of Renaissance natural philosophers. The chapter begins with recognizable natural history: regional differences in foxes, their daily habits, voice, and diet. Interspersed with these are quaint, seemingly out of place comments, including common fables and folklore. If we are modern historians of science, we might just bypass these and decide that Gesner was just too uninformed to tell the difference between fact and fiction. But section H of the fox chapter, a full 6 pages out of 16, is titled "Associations." Here we learn fox epithets (sly or crafty), biblical references, foxes in metaphor, classical quotations, fox proverbs, and more. Why does Gesner include them, and spend more pages on this section then any other? Should we ignore it? What is it for? Ashford gives us an answer: it is possible that for Gesner, "knowledge of animal symbolism was considered an essential part of natural history."5

At the very least, these associations are a part of what Gesner calls "animal history," the name of his book. The first book to use "natural history" in its title is Jonston's Natural History of Quadrupeds, published in 1657, one hundred years after Gesner. Notably absent from Jonston's tome are the "associations" that Gesner spent so much time and space describing -- the human connections to the animals that so fascinate the children who visit the museum where I spend my time. The signs and symbols and fables and linguistic connections have disappeared. Michel Foucault notes their passing (in his usual academic prose):

The division, so evident to us, between what we see, what others have observed and handed down, and what others imagine or naively believe, the great tripartition, apparently so simple and immediate, into Observation, Document, and Fable, did not exist. And this was not because science was hesitating between a rational vocation and the vast weight of naive tradition, but for the much more precise and much more constraining reason that signs were then part of things themselves, whereas in the seventeenth century they become modes of representation.6

Gesner, a good Renaissance humanist, obtained his information from books, mostly classical ones. He went to a lot of trouble to give his reader all the relevant information in those books. To generalize broadly, Jonston and later naturalists focused their study on the observable -- what they could see. The source of information was different. Signs and fables and associations disappear, not because they are superstitious, but because they are no longer relevant to the process of studying natural history.

Wonder and science, then and now. Does all of this mean that people stopped being amazed by natural objects? That they stopped telling strange stories of far-off places and long ago? Absolutely not. Collections of natural objects and exotic artifacts thrived in the curiosity cabinets, or Wunderkammer (literally "wonder rooms"), of the 17th century. In fact, many would argue that they were calculated to produce exactly those emotions of amazement and wonder at the world around us. Unlike modern museums, these displays didn't display similar objects together -- they didn't distinguish among plants, animals, rocks, and artwork. To display many birds together would detract from the uniqueness of each bird, and these eclectic collections focused on the rare and exotic. So they juxtaposed everything in close proximity, creating an overwhelming feeling of wonder and awe. Each object was a curio, a rarity, and the collections were private, to be toured only by the privileged friends of the owner's fifth cousin twice removed. You could not even see the objects without hearing the owner relate the exotic stories of their origins.

Modern American natural history museums have their roots in the 19th century. In these, everything was classified carefully and displayed with others of its type, showing both similarity and variety. This was not done to detract from our amazement; quite the opposite. Good children of the Enlightenment, these 19th century curators wanted us to be amazed at the rational order of the natural world. If we could only see the amazingly complex but rational order of the world, if we could open the book of nature and read its pages, we would surely gain some insight into the mind of the Creator, and so better our poor lowly souls. In fact, the building in which I work is emblazoned with these words of famous 19th century naturalist (and anti-Darwinist) Louis Agassiz: "Go to Nature. Take the facts into your own hands. See for yourself." Thanks, Louis. Yes, we do "hands-on science." But can I still tell my stories here?

Museums -- the stories they tell, and the objects they display -- have changed a great deal and are still changing now. Early in the 20th century, with the establishment of fields of study such as ecology and modern anthropology, context became a little more important again. But not cultural context -- not the symbols and signs and fables and folklore of earlier periods. This time around, natural context became important. So, animals are depicted in their natural habitats (remember our lion?), organized geographically, inviting an imaginary journey to an exotic locale. Fossils are often organized chronologically, and artistic reconstructions of ancient seas help us to take some magical trips to places long ago, if not far away. Cultural artifacts are presented with articles from the same culture, rather than being sorted into textiles, woodworking, and transportation devices. Adding even more context, Franz Boas championed the life group, those (sometimes old and offensively stereotypical) wax figures that let us see how artifacts were actually used by people. So we have begun to let our imaginations wander again. But we are still not connecting the human context, the associations and fables and symbols and mythology of the natural world, to the natural objects we display. Or are we?

What's Next?

Modern natural science is changing again. We are beginning to try to see ourselves as part of the natural world, not as visitors to a pristine and fragile Eden. Modern museum designers construct walk-through rain forests and marshes, placing the museum-goer inside the habitat. And we are beginning to learn about nature from people again. Perhaps we threw out the proverbial baby when we excised ancient lore from our science. Emergent fields such as ethnobotany and ethnozoology seek to understand the relationships of people, particularly indigenous peoples, to the natural world. Suddenly, their knowledge of and relationship to the plants and animals in their environments is valuable and vital, both to researching and preserving biodiversity and to developing new medicines. Now, doctors and botanists and anthropologists visit native healers to learn their lore. And we are not only learning their botany, we are learning the folktales and symbols and cultural connections that go along with it. Make no mistake -- new drugs are profitable, and indigenous people are only rarely and poorly compensated for their contributions. But these visits have led to many new medicines, for everything from cancer and AIDS to constipation. Ancient European herbals have yielded quinine (for malaria), digitalis (for heart failure), and aspirin. What else do they hold? Perhaps we should look back to those classical texts once more, or to the plants that ancient Aztec healers drew so beautifully.7

The museum where I work has added a new exhibit on modern rainforest cultures, their often fading cultural knowledge of their environment, and the contemporary problems they face due to development. And, at long last, we have begun to think about ways to renew our long out-of-date exhibits on Native American cultures. Just a few weeks ago, a visiting expert was flown in to give us advice on how to work with local community groups of Native Americans to change our displays. She urged us to widen the story we tell to include the land and the people in the same exhibits, and highlight their interactions, past and present, cultural and environmental. Feeling a bit overwhelmed and out of my depth (I'm a biologist, not an anthropologist, Captain!), I complained to her that her ideas were all wonderful, but our staff don't have the expertise to tell those stories. She smiled. Tell the stories you do know, she said. Tell one story of many cultures. Tell the story of maize, its cultivation and breeding, its religious, symbolic, and agricultural importance. Tell the story of how the varieties give us evidence of massive trade routes in pre-Columbian and modern America, and insure our survival in case our cloned crops fail. Tell the folktales and the history, and the environmental science. Tell the economic story, too. Hmmm . . . I smiled. . . .

Isn't that what I've been saying all along?!?

The objects we collect, and the way we display them, and the stories we tell about them, will continue to reflect the ideas we have about nature and our place in it. But perhaps we can start telling the whole story again soon.


Reader Comments

Kira Berman has been working in science museums since she was a teenager. She is currently the Director of Education at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan.


1. See Susan Vogel's article "Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion" in Ivan Karp and Steven Levine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Politics and Poetics of Museum Display (Washington, 1991), 191-204.

2. Cited in Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature (New York, 1998), 40-41.

3. Ibid., 43.

4. William B. Ashworth, "Emblematic Natural History of the Renaissance," in N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E. C. Sparry, eds., Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), 17-37.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York, 1973), 129.

7. Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox, Plants, People, and Culture (New York, 1996).

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