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Monday, October 08, 2007

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

Today the federal holiday is Columbus Day, and my city's holiday is Indigenous Peoples Day--two very different responses to the historical fact of Columbus' landing.

Kelly's reflections on museums and libraries have inspired my thinking about the interpretation of historical facts--of the interpretation of facts in general--and reminded me of one of my favorite books on museology, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture of Natural History Museums by Stephen T. Asma. (The maritime connection is there--really! Many of these collections were built through the voyages undertaken during the 'great age of exploration.' And, well, Darwin! We can't forget Darwin! See? Maritime connection.)

Why I mention this book is that it helped me to interpret the messages inherent in the exhibits--how the presentation of scientific fact is never neutral. It's the same with history, especially maritime history. Our maritime culture is as present in Columbus Day/Indigenous People's Day as in the coffee or tea we drank this morning, yet many of us only "consume" maritime history through museums--or text--with as little thought about them as we give to our morning coffee. They are simply there. When the museum presents the objects, or the book presents the facts, what message is being conveyed by their juxtaposition? By the words surrounding their presentation? By the illustrations? The lighting? Check out this book, and you'll begin to see the messages around the exhibits--the opinions surrounding the facts.

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