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Steve Asma has seen a lot, but he’d never seen a translucent rat until his brother gave him one for his birthday. It floats in a jar of formaldehyde, twisted awkwardly, as if its back were broken. You can see through the skin and muscles. Its bones have somehow been dyed red, so that a rodent skeleton looms in ghostly outline beneath the tissues. “The rib cage and spine and feet and hands are articulated very clearly,” says Asma, who doesn’t like the rodent much. “The skull is bloodred.”

Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College, didn’t mention the rat in his new book, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, but he could have. It’s like a museum specimen–not because it’s dead or disturbing, but because it’s ambiguous.

You could see the red-boned rodent as a work of art. But in the shock shop where his brother bought it, it was one curiosity among many, a kind of super Halloween decoration. If it were in a classroom, alongside similarly prepared specimens of other small mammals, it might offer a lesson in skeletal anatomy. In a different classroom, lined up with other rats, their tissues reduced to various degrees of translucency, it might show how to prepare a specimen. At a protest rally, next to other gruesomely posed animals, it might tell a story of humans’ inhumanity to other species. What is the rat, really? That depends an awful lot on what it’s next to.

In the same way, Asma writes, museum specimens don’t mean much unless you can place them in a context of some kind. “You can’t gain admittance into the meaning of a specimen simply by looking at it harder, or even by anatomizing it. The significance of the collected object does not inhere in the specimen itself, but is socially and theoretically constructed.”

One way for a museum to provide a context, of course, is just to say what a specimen is supposed to be. Stick a label on the rat’s jar. That’s what most museums do most of the time: they provide “a plaque, a chart or a recording that announces to you–even before a question can be formulated in your head–‘What you are seeing is thus and so.'” We tend to think that if we aren’t reading labels, we aren’t learning. Asma agrees that museums should be instructive, but the argument of his book is that if they aren’t places of inspiration first, they’ll lose most of their audience.

People often disagree about which context a rat, or any other specimen, ought to be put in. (“How can you have an exhibit about rodent anatomy when thousands of animals are tortured every day?”) Asma is more concerned with how museums teach than with what they teach. Whatever context you decide to put an object in, he asks, is labeling really the most effective way to do so? Isn’t the most instructive context one that you feel with all your senses, including your sense of humor?

Those would be rhetorical questions for Ken Yellis of the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Natural Science Collections Alliance, held June 9 at the Field Museum. “As an exhibit developer,” he said, “whenever I have recourse to text I feel I have somehow failed….Text should be the strategy of last resort in an exhibition–what you use when you run out of ideas or time or money.”

The developers of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s “Butterfly Haven” exhibit were evidently thinking along these same lines. When Asma and I visited the exhibit we entered a small anteroom where a video advised us not to grab or scare the butterflies. We pushed through the swinging doors and a barrier of rushing air, and found ourselves in a breezy, skylit space roughly the size and height of a basketball court, its ceiling and south and west walls all glass.

Everywhere we looked, butterflies–large and small, red, black, yellow, blue, and white–swooped, darted, and flitted. They perched on filmy mesh over the high walls and on the multicolored flowers. Some paused to visit the pieces of watermelon and ripe bananas that had been placed on tall metal feeding trays. Sweet smells wafted through the air; birds seemed to twitter in the background.

There were no signs, no hovering escorts, no explanations of any kind–and nothing obvious for us to do. The butterfly haven isn’t “interactive” in the usual museum sense. Asma appreciatively contrasted it with the “robotic stuff” that dominates many exhibits these days. “Kids run up and pull the lever or whatever, then they run off,” he said. “Here you have to put your own ego aside and absorb things for a while.”

We followed a walkway around the waist-high banks of flowers and came to a couple of chatty museum volunteers. One was overseeing a movable stand that held chrysalides from which native butterflies would soon emerge. (The exotic species of butterflies must hatch in a separate room before being released here.) Another volunteer showed visitors a plant on which two black-and-yellow butterflies were mating.

On our way out, we faced a mirror in which to check ourselves for “passengers.” Then we entered an L-shaped room where a series of placards and maps and captions named the butterflies we’d just seen and explained which ones prefer which habitats.

The displays were colorful, readable, and well designed. But their presence just underlined the fact that we were no longer in a magical space with ravishingly beautiful creatures passing over our heads. We were back in an old-style labeling museum.

In the butterfly haven a dozen or so people had been gawking and talking and taking pictures. In the L-shaped room, Asma and I were alone. No one was lingering and learning here.

The butterfly haven puts butterflies in a context where we see them as strange, wonderful, glittering beings. It’s not especially realistic–those aren’t real birds–and I’m not sure that it succeeds in making people want to know more. But it’s inspiring and memorable.

Downstairs, the museum has a smaller and more conventional exhibit on green building materials that relies largely on textual exhortation to adjust people’s attitudes. Mounted in a hallway, its rectangular shapes of different textures in pastel greens and browns look like a series of experiments in wall covering–and are about as exciting. If conveying the message about ecologically sound construction really requires so many words, so few images, and so little felt experience, then Yellis and Asma might well suggest that it belongs somewhere else, not in a museum. It’s not that the cause is unworthy. A movie that consisted of scrolling text of Shakespeare wouldn’t be unworthy–it just wouldn’t be living up to the potential of the medium.

Occupying a portion of the vast middle ground between these two exhibits in the Nature Museum is the Field Museum’s temporary “butterfly garden” exhibit. The Field’s approach to butterflies is more didactic and text based than the Nature Museum’s. The brilliant flowering plants growing in the butterfly garden have their Latin names posted nearby, and visitors are invited to carry big plastic placards with pictures and names of butterflies for identification purposes.

The Field Museum garden’s ambience is pleasant, but it doesn’t cast the otherworldly spell of the Nature Museum. The difference isn’t complicated. At the entrance to the Nature Museum’s butterfly haven I stopped dead and stared. I stopped and stared in the Field’s butterfly garden too–at the identification placard, frustrated that I couldn’t find a picture on it to match the butterfly in front of me.

More ambitious but in the same vein as the Nature Museum’s experiential butterfly haven is the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution in Paris, where Asma spent some time while researching his book. He found that the curators had managed to create a striking display of evolutionary change without using any text at all. Well, almost none–Asma discovered the text by sitting on a bench, which held placards for those who wanted them. That’s part of the point of the experiential or inspirational museum. If you want the text, if you want to know more, if you want to be a scientist and not just play one on TV, then the experience may eventually move you to seek out the informative details, either in the museum or somewhere else.

Ken Yellis suspects that museum exhibits are the least studied of all major media. Asma agrees. He writes, “Museums are saying more than we have previously noticed,” and he’s fascinated by the way they offer “three-dimensional windows into the world of ideas.”

In the beginning, four centuries ago when private “curiosity cabinets” began to be opened to public view, museums combined the same two desires they do now: to show off exotic objects and to preach. In Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads Asma quotes 16th-century collector Konrad Gesner on his display of insects: “These little creatures so hateful to all men, are not yet to be despised, since they are created of Almighty God for diverse and sundry uses,” such as providing medicine for people and food for other animals. “They show and set forth the Omnipotency of God, and execute his justice.”

Museums began preaching more secular sermons in the 1700s and early 1800s. Asma visited the exhibits assembled by John Hunter in London and Baron Georges Cuvier in Paris, which are still preserved largely in their original 200-year-old arrangements.

To collect is to classify, and early classifications can look crude to us now. In one cabinet, Asma writes, Hunter displayed sap, blood, muscle fibers, shells, horns, joints, and feet–all under the title “Parts Employed in Motion.” Another cabinet in his museum contained “milk glands and nipples, crop glands of birds, young animals attached to the tail of the mother, young in pouches, young on the mother’s back, and young animals protected in nests”–all examples of “Nourishment, and Protection, Afforded by the Mother to Her Young.”

Cuvier was more discriminating, focusing just on olfactory organs of mammals, for instance. But his exhibits also reveal an ideological agenda. He was so impressed by the logical coherence of each organism that he found the idea of evolution wholly implausible. (This had nothing to do with religious dogma, notes Asma. “He simply believed that without strict, unchanging biological boundaries, biology would not be able to obtain the status of true science.”) Thus he rarely put fossils and living animals together in the same display, says Asma, “lest people associate older and more recent forms.”

For the same reason, Cuvier was reluctant to lay much emphasis on specimens that were abnormal in some way, such as a two-headed calf. Hunter had no such inhibitions. He collected and classified and displayed more than 3,000 “monsters.” According to Asma, “Cabinets were assigned for monsters due to ‘Abnormal Situation of Parts,’ for those resulting from ‘Addition of Parts,’ for those resulting from ‘Deficiency of Parts,’ and so on.” More useful context would have to await the discovery of genetics.

Two hundred years ago, the mere sight of strange objects or pictures from afar was enough to astonish, amuse, and educate. But as communications and image making improved, the sight of “abnormal situation of parts” came to seem less impressive. In the 1880s, Carl Akeley, along with William Hornaday of the Smithsonian, revolutionized museum presentation by creating dramatic, lifelike dioramas. Akeley’s African elephants still draw attention in the great room of the Field Museum. Asma got so interested in the lifelike preservation standards of present-day taxidermy that he traveled to downstate Effingham to visit an Illinois Taxidermist Association display competition. “I asked the members whether they saw themselves as artists,” he writes, “and all assented without hesitation.”

Precise rendition of living animals might be considered science as well as art. Even this most basic form of experiential exhibit is enough to bring together the allegedly separate enterprises of art and science. Asma is well placed to enjoy their reunion, since he teaches at a school with a fine-arts bent, has played gigs with Buddy Guy, and has struggled to illustrate abstract ideas in his book Buddha for Beginners.

Lifelike taxidermy may be good, but it’s not enough, now that nobody has to leave home to see posed stuffed animals. Instead we crave exotic experiences. So ideas about how to engage and instruct the public are changing. “No one expects the patron to retain large amounts of text-based factual material or theoretical minutiae,” writes Asma. “But if some conceptually rich images get lodged in people’s brains during their visit,” that may be enough to start them thinking differently.

How to accomplish this? Vivid multisensory cues help, as do metaphors. Yellis favors exhibits that look like what they’re about (benches in an exhibit on children’s nature writing might take the form of giant books, for instance). In its “Life Over Time” exhibit, the Field Museum represents the working of evolution–whereby chance variations and survival of the fittest produce well-adapted organisms–with what Asma calls “a large wheel-of-fortune device, a kind of vertical roulette wheel. The wheel is painted with images that represent genetic traits, and children are invited to spin the wheel to see which trait would be beneficial for an aquatic animal’s evolution onto dry land.”

Humor helps too. “Nowhere else in my travels,” writes Asma, “did I see a museum that so consistently goes for the funny bone as Chicago’s Field Museum. Large segments of the Field’s ‘Life over Time’ exhibit seem to have been designed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the displays informs the visitor about the evolution of mammalian teeth, and it does so by recreating a dentist’s office, complete with a cow skeleton sitting in the dentist’s chair awaiting a checkup. Behind the skeleton, the cow’s Holstein skin hangs on an office coatrack.”

Is all this just dumbing down evolution? Asma doesn’t think so. “A display’s potential for education and transformation,” he writes, “is largely a function of its artistic, nondiscursive character. Three-dimensional representations of nature (dioramas), two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of concepts (such as the roulette wheel), and visual images generally are not just candy coatings on [what some would insist is] the real educational process of textual information transmission.” In Asma’s view, learning to see the survival of adaptations as a roulette wheel can be a full intellectual meal in itself, text or no text.

In the same vein, Yellis conceives of museum exhibits as a form of theater in which visitors seek to learn their roles. Visitors, he says, need all the cues they can get to enable them to “perform” and thus gain access to the experience the museum designers had in mind. In addition to–or instead of–reading labels, they may be called upon to try a roulette game or to just stand still and admire the butterflies.

And experience, say both men, is what sticks, what motivates. The medievals understood that even a picture could communicate cause-and-effect relationships to worshipers. “When you’re tempted, for example, to covet your neighbor’s wife,” writes Asma, “you might not remember the priest’s lengthy homily, but you might remember the Bosch-like fresco of that guy with the arrow up his ass and the demons around his throat.”

This view of museum exhibits isn’t universally accepted, of course. As Field Museum senior exhibit developer Eric Gyllenhaal told Asma, scientists tend to view museum exhibits as a chance to pack in the maximum possible amount of textual information. From Gyllenhaal’s standpoint, “The scientists want to have way too much information included; it’s overkill.”

But there’s also such a thing as underkill. On the way from the butterfly haven to the Nature Museum cafeteria stands a little kiosk walled with shelves. They’re full of bits and pieces from the Nature Museum’s beloved and now dismantled predecessor, the fantastically crowded museum that occupied the Matthew Laflin Building on the other side of Lincoln Park until 1995.

The shelves contain stuffed birds, mounted and unmounted; jars jammed full of frogs and turtles and snakes preserved in clear alcohol; fossils; eggs of all sizes. In the middle of the kiosk–where the vendor would be if this were O’Hare–a museum volunteer stands preparing and labeling old plant specimens. She chats with passing visitors about the specimens and how she’s preserving them.

Without an articulate volunteer on the scene, however, this exhibit carries the textless museum too far. Stripped of the context they had back in the Laflin Building, the specimens may be intended to recall a past kind of museum, but they offer only a raw, fragmented jumble of experience that’s more annoying than fascinating. Just taking the labels off is not enough. Even a rat with bright red bones needs some accompaniment.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums by Stephen Asma, Oxford University Press, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.