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Mixed Glands, No. 2 (Female)
September 24, 2011 6:45 AM   Subscribe

The 100,000-item Victorian curio collection other museums refused to take. 'The “merman”, a chimera made from bits of fish, fowl and monkey, is identified as “possibly Dutch or Japanese, possibly a Javanese ritual figure, possibly 1801-1900”. A paper label classifies it under veterinary medicine.'
posted by shii (43 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
A pity that both the slideshows are uncaptioned.
posted by infini at 7:10 AM on September 24, 2011


I'll take that executioner mask if nobody wants it.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:11 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Wellcome's home page lets you see a number of exhibits through "explore."
posted by thomas j wise at 7:13 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think they've taken a really hard-to-deal-with collection and dealt with it admirably, pulling a relevant mission statement out of a real heterogeneity of objects. The museum website is pretty rich and makes the place seem really appealing to visit. And it has the cool panache that UK museums do better than anyone. Interesting post, thanks!
posted by Miko at 7:20 AM on September 24, 2011


Skeleton alarm clock.

WANT.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:29 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Personally I approve of the Victorian 'curiosa' concept of a museum and the lack of a mission statement. The British Museum in London has a few rooms setup in the crowded mish-mash Victorian fashion. And to me that's an amazing experience; to be all around surrounded bywealth of intrigueing artefacts.

I think the scraps marked by biohazard signs are tattoos. The saws are trepanation saws I think.
posted by joost de vries at 8:09 AM on September 24, 2011


That's really neat. It's as if the schizophrenic, wealthy, mad doctor side of us all popped out, existed, and then proceeded to grab everything from everywhere. I think this quote sums this collection up rather well:

“The whole of India should be ransacked,” was how one of his collecting agents summed up his brief.

A bit juvenile in retrospect, but the 12 year old in me who managed to collect every single last damn Pokémon card through hook or crook (much to my classmates' chagrin) a decade or so ago is giggling intolerably.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 8:09 AM on September 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


And to me that's an amazing experience; to be all around surrounded bywealth of intrigueing artefacts.

The Cabinet of Curiosities model is definitely coming back around in popoularity. But it's also important to recognize that museums moved away from it for some good reasons, mainly to do with cultural artifacts which are, of course, much more than 'curiosities' to the people who made and used them, especially religious artifacts. The Cabinet of Curiosities is sort of a material manifestation of Western Victorian men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world, cultural and physical, and considering just about everything simply fodder for the construction of their view of the world.

Still, it is honestly a pretty cool display method and people never lose their fascination with the way it encourages comparison, contrast, juxtaposition, discovery, and wonder.
posted by Miko at 8:15 AM on September 24, 2011 [9 favorites]


I went through one of those Victorian-era museums in, as I remember, Copenhagen. As much as I appreciate the artfulness with which modern museums display cultural objects, the jumbled floor to ceiling mash-up of objects had its charm. One room was Peru, with a half a dozen Peruvian mummies in a glass case (those are the things you remember); the Polynesian room had canoes hanging from the ceiling...but Miko is right: there are some good reasons some of these objects are no longer common in museums, aside from general cultural squeamishness.

The best meta-museum, of course, is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, discussed here on Metafilter in 2003.
posted by kozad at 8:27 AM on September 24, 2011


Miko, your response highlights for me why the 'mission statement' model doesn't work for me.
I don't subscribe to your notion that a collection of intrigueing things equals 'men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world, cultural and physical'.
It's precisely that type of politicising of the museum, the museum experience as belecturing, that I find very tiresome and will avoid at all cost.
posted by joost de vries at 8:38 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wonderful article on a fascinating subject--

I think it’s fantastically incoherent,” says Ken Arnold, its head of public programmes. “I suppose it’s a museum of possibilities.”

And I had not hitherto known the origin of the word "tabloid" either. Thanks for posting this.
posted by emhutchinson at 8:40 AM on September 24, 2011


I found this in the Cabinet of Curiosities. What is it? It scares me.
posted by Xurando at 8:41 AM on September 24, 2011


The Cabinet of Curiosities is sort of a material manifestation of Western Victorian men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world

The wiki's pretty decent on this subject. The Wünderkammer way predates Victoria.
posted by Wolof at 8:42 AM on September 24, 2011


One room was Peru, with a half a dozen Peruvian mummies in a glass case (those are the things you remember)

Right. This looks a lot different to you if those mummies are your ancestors and their grave was robbed by Westerners to populate the museum.

I don't subscribe to your notion that a collection of intrigueing things equals 'men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world, cultural and physical'.

It's definitely not my notion. It's there in the primary documents, written right into the founder's statements and collecting documents.

It's precisely that type of politicising of the museum, the museum experience as belecturing, that I find very tiresome and will avoid at all cost.

Museums are political. The strange activity of collecting and displaying is always subject to the ideas of their times. Museums embody all the ideas about the world that their various founders have held, and that's part of what makes them so incredibly interesting. What kind of museum could make no statement about what's valuable, what's not, what's worth displaying, and how it should be displayed?
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on September 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Museum of Jurassic Technology probably points up the difference between the type of xenophobia and exoticism that needs to be avoided, and the complex narratives and psychoceramic analysis that a truly great cabinet of curiosities can attain.

The MJT is nearly perfect in that respect. It has long, winding narratives running through it, like a meta-narrative not of some exotic, foreign culture, but of its own.

There should be places where we can see, fairly objectively, the artifacts of unfamiliar cultures, in order to help us understand them in a broader context. There should also be places where we can see FeeJee mermaids and the artifacts of trailer parks.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:48 AM on September 24, 2011


The Museum of Jurassic Technology probably points up the difference between the type of xenophobia and exoticism that needs to be avoided, and the complex narratives and psychoceramic analysis that a truly great cabinet of curiosities can attain.

This is totally true, and our contemporary interest in juxtaposition, hybridization, the revealing of networks and the surfacing of suppressed histories, is probably responsible for the renewed interest in them - a lot of that stuff that's going on in our culture right now is why we again think they are cool, while they were basically deplored in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The other thing we wrestle with in museums is that we can have really highfalutin ideas about complex narratives, but we have no way of guaranteeing that the public is going to be taking away those highfalutin ideas instead of 'wow, that culture was fucked up' or similar. We can't display anything without communicating something, and we aren't fully in control of the messages people receive, and that's both a wonderful and a sometimes problematic thing.

There should be places where we can see, fairly objectively, the artifacts of unfamiliar cultures, in order to help us understand them in a broader context.

I sort of agree with this, but sometimes I wonder, because I certainly know people who are museum professionals and/or members of exhibited cultures who actually think this is not the way to learn about cultures, objectively, disconnected from their context, reorganized and not used as intended by the maker. It was perhaps a more logical project in an age without the media we have today. Today we're at pains to justify why our museums own some of the items they do, and what good they're doing, divorced from their origins.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on September 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


I found this in the Cabinet of Curiosities. What is it? It scares me.

I wondered about that too (how could you not). It looks like a masturbation aid, but I'm not sure what else might be going on with it.
posted by Miko at 8:56 AM on September 24, 2011


It looks like a masturbation aid, but I'm not sure what else might be going on with it.

Perhaps for training midwives for delivery? Fully dilated, and there seems to be a collapsible "stomach" area.

I could see wandering into that place and not wandering out again for two years, maybe three.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 9:05 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't subscribe to your notion that a collection of intrigueing things equals 'men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world, cultural and physical'.

It's definitely not my notion. It's there in the primary documents, written right into the founder's statements and collecting documents. --Miko

I couldn't find these statements you mention. Do you have a link?

All I could find was this:

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.

posted by eye of newt at 9:17 AM on September 24, 2011


Do you have a link?

Oh, God, a link! If only. That would be a project. Most of what I'm talking about are ideas found in primary documents in archives, which I read or read about in reproduction in secondary print sources. I don't know of many museums that put their founding documents online. Some things are available via Google Books, Google Scholar or JSTOR and you can dig around in there. Some stuff to get started on:

My background on the topic comes generally from my training and texts like Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Rethinking the Museum, and John Cotton Dana's The New Museum.

There is a pretty big body of work documenting aspects of the archaeological and collecting expeditions funded and otherwise supported by museums in the 19th century and sometimes beyond that is great fodder for learning about the project these collectors were engaged in and why they thought it was important to do.

These are all fascinating reads and this is a fascinating topic for those who care about museums in society and the history and historiography of museums. The very fact that ethnographic objects often ended up in natural history museums rather than art or culture museums speaks volumes about how the establishers of those museums conceived of the works of those human beings as related more to the natural world than the world of man. The story of Ishi is a famed and tragic example of this kind of thinking on the part of museum administrators.

In the nineteenth century in particular, partially due to the influence of early Darwinism and partially to industrialization, one of the commonest factors in display was the use of objects to support a narrative of progress - progress in man from primitive to sophisticated, progress in society from tribal to civilized, progress in nature through the orders of animals. There was usually the implication of a teleology to the development of the world, leading to the achievements of man today and to his ability to collect, classify, and understand all of existence, including his fellow man. Ultimately this led to what's called "systematic" display, which had this implied organization and narrative, as a refinement of the cabinet of curiosity model which often didn't make any distinctions between natural objects, cultural objects, and human remains at all.

I don't want to spend the time now to do a lengthy search, but you can go into Google Books and look for founders' statements, expedition reports, and annual reports about museums in the 1800s and earlier.
posted by Miko at 10:11 AM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, my general comments about museum display weren't meant to be specific to the Wellcome Trust, it's a neat history and has certainly grown into a really cool institution. The background info on Wellcome is really interesting stuff. His collecting methods definitely were of their time and would be out of bounds today. He definitely had a narrative he wanted to suggest in the use of his collection:
"Wellcome said his aim in collecting was to "bring together a collection of historical objects illustrating the development of the art and science of healing throughout the ages....Most of the anthropological material possesses strong medical significance, for in all the ages the preservation of health and life has been uppermost in the minds of living beings"

...With this view of medicine, it was natural that Wellcome's original concept of a Historical Medical Museum should broaden into that of a 'Museum of Man' - a reconstruction of every stage in humankind’s development by means of objects. Pieced together, he intended them to form a three-dimensional book presenting an all-encompassing history of humankind’s fight for survival through the ages....
And much as we might endorse the idea of old-school display methods and have wanted to have access to this stuff to marvel and wonder at, he didn't want us to. His philosophy of access was distinctly non-populist:
Wellcome always held firmly to the belief that study of the past can inform and shape the future. He therefore saw his Historical Medical Museum as a venue for serious research, and said he did not want "stragglers" or "those who wish to view strange and curious objects" in his museum. Admission was mainly restricted to the medical and allied professions, and visitors had to apply to visit the Museum in writing. As a result, visitor numbers to Wigmore Street were low.
posted by Miko at 10:23 AM on September 24, 2011


The Wellcome Trust is also only 75 years old, and is more a modern incarnation of a museum. I believe Miko was referring to the original intents of the victorian era museums and collectors who were the ones going out to find and document these 'curiosities.'

The Wellcome trust is doing it's best to display what it has inherited through it's history as a medical institution of late, it appears. In that regard, it reminds me of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

> I sort of agree with this, but sometimes I wonder, because I certainly know people who are museum professionals and/or members of exhibited cultures who actually think this is not the way to learn about cultures, objectively, disconnected from their context, reorganized and not used as intended by the maker.

I had a chance to visit the National Museum of the American Indian after the new space in DC opened. It impressive the balance they had to strike between the academic merit of the artifacts and that many of them are actually still culturally significant objects for groups of people still alive today. When I was talking to the director, one of their biggest projects they were implementing were mobile museums, that would allow for tribal groups to loan their artifacts to the Museum (for storage and documentation) but be able to retrieve them for culturally significant events. So instead of dead art and dead objects on display in the museum, they were showing actual objects that tribal groups had agreed to put on display, as an educational tool to show others about their groups.

Now that was the museum's PR spin on it, so I don't know how the tribes feel about the agreements (especially six years later, I haven't been back after they started the program). But it is reframing the museum from being a display of things taken or traded away from conquered or subjugated people who exist outside the circle of 'normal society' to one that is a join venture between living peoples who wish to educate others about their culture and history.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:24 AM on September 24, 2011


Wellcome was one of the founders of Big Pharma. Introduced tablets, as opposed to powders. Wiki
posted by warbaby at 10:29 AM on September 24, 2011


My impression is that most tribal members are in support of the NMAI methods. But I know it's one of the most contentious museums to run and to work in because it really takes seriously this idea of incorporating hundreds of different tribal perspectives.

The Wellcome Trust is 75 but the collection is older, because it was just Wellcome's collection before he died and it became a trust.
posted by Miko at 10:30 AM on September 24, 2011


Here is a photo of another Fiji Mermaid in a Ripley's Museum in Seaside, Oregon.
posted by Tube at 10:31 AM on September 24, 2011


I sort of agree with this, but sometimes I wonder, because I certainly know people who are museum professionals and/or members of exhibited cultures who actually think this is not the way to learn about cultures, objectively, disconnected from their context, reorganized and not used as intended by the maker. It was perhaps a more logical project in an age without the media we have today. Today we're at pains to justify why our museums own some of the items they do, and what good they're doing, divorced from their origins.

Wow, that's a really good point.

In a way, though, it sort of reminds me of an issue that I've run across quite a bit in technology. When designing user interfaces for software and hardware, there's a common model I think of as the hostile user. That is, someone who is actively hostile and narrow minded about learning and understanding new technologies to the point that they maliciously misinterpet things as a means of reinforcing their hostile perspective.

And I don't doubt for a minute that this audience exists, no matter what the subject. Every field has its -phobes. But at some point, IMO, you just have to say, "Yeah, well, screw those guys. They're not going to like anything anyway," and focus instead on reaching people who have a sincere, open-minded curiosity about things that fall outside of their current experiences and understanding. And artifacts of other cultures really can be an important part of the learning process for those who are genuinely interested in understanding.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:51 AM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Cabinet of Curiosities is sort of a material manifestation of Western Victorian men's interests in establishing dominion over the entire world, cultural and physical, and considering just about everything simply fodder for the construction of their view of the world.

There's a confusion here between two very different types of collection, the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and the Victorian museum. In the cabinet of curiosities, objects are placed in unexpected juxtapositions to stimulate wonder and surprise. In the museum, objects are arranged in a systematic order to illustrate progress and development.

One of the interesting things about the Wellcome Collection is that, despite its Victorian origins, it represents something of a throwback to the cabinet of curiosities:

As well as artefacts specific to medicine and healing, it included large quantities of weapons, bales of fabric, furniture, ancient cooking implements, porcelain, glassware, statues, coins, medals, objets d'art and even torture instruments. He also acquired a sample of the hair of various historical figures, including George Washington, George III, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington - whose relevance to medicine is not immediately apparent. It even had an arms and armour section, which acquired a practical role in World War II, when its old service rifles were offered to the Home Guard.

This makes the Wellcome Collection the perfect museum for our times, when curators have rediscovered, and embraced, the idea of the museum-as-curiosity-cabinet. 'Fantastically incoherent', 'a museum of possibilities', is very much the modern way of thinking (and very deliberately emphasized in the current layout of the Wellcome, where, e.g., many of the objects are displayed without labels so that you have to try and guess what they are). But don't confuse it with a Victorian museum, because it's about as far removed from a Victorian museum as you could possibly get; in fact the Wellcome as it exists today is a rejection of virtually everything the Victorian museum stood for.
posted by verstegan at 1:29 PM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's a confusion here between two very different types of collection, the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and the Victorian museum.

You're right about that.

curators have rediscovered, and embraced, the idea of the museum-as-curiosity-cabinet.

I think some have, but for others it remains really problematic, especially for cultural objects.
posted by Miko at 1:43 PM on September 24, 2011


..in other words, despite some of their differences in organization, both the cabinet of curiosities and the systematic display era embodied the pursuit of a comprehensive knowledge of the larger world, and both inadequately handled the complexities presented by cultural objects, particularly those of cultures not represented in the museum administrations.
posted by Miko at 1:46 PM on September 24, 2011


Dang it. Just there last month and managed to hit Sir John Soane's and the Hunterian but missed the memo on this, never mind that we walked by the Scence Museum on the way to the supercolossal V&A. Next time.
posted by mwhybark at 7:56 PM on September 24, 2011


Science, even.
posted by mwhybark at 7:56 PM on September 24, 2011


"It belongs in a museum."

-- Young Indiana Jones (played by a doomed River Phoenix) in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which is a pretty solid entry in the IJ movie series, if you ask me, but you didn't).
posted by elder18 at 8:31 PM on September 24, 2011


MetaFilter: Maliciously misinterpeting things as a means of reinforcing our hostile perspective.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:34 PM on September 24, 2011


The Wellcome collection in London is amazing. One of my favorite places to take guests.

I'd also like to note that the British Museum has a Fiji Mermaid on display as well.
posted by vacapinta at 3:21 AM on September 25, 2011


I was thinking about the vagina object. I doubt it would be used for training midwives since midwives wouldn't need a model - they got their training directly, at births, through informal apprenticeships. But it might be something used by male doctors to teach doctors-in-training delivery or other gynecological procedures. That would make more sense for a medical museum. I sure wish it were captioned.
posted by Miko at 4:53 AM on September 25, 2011


...But it might be something used by male doctors to teach doctors-in-training delivery or other gynecological procedures...

Miko,
I have no idea whether you are correct here - but that sounds like such a smart guess. (Also so wish there was a caption.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:49 AM on September 25, 2011


Miko: There is a caption at the bottom. "Obstetric phantom. This 18th-century Italian model for teaching obstetrics is known as a 'phantom' and is made from wood and leather, like a piece of furniture. The 'baby' inside is a cloth doll"

Are all of you missing this, reading something else or just wishing for more specific information. (Or possibly a browser problem with the window setup, I am using chrome)
posted by darkfred at 4:24 PM on September 26, 2011


Or possibly a browser problem with the window setup, I am using chrome)

At least I looked high and low for even such a description... I'm using Firefox
posted by infini at 5:13 PM on September 26, 2011


I'm using Chrome and not seeing captions.
posted by Miko at 7:49 PM on September 26, 2011


Ah-HA. It's a window sizing thing. The caption sits just below the size of the window and I had to scroll up to find it - but it isn't very evident because it looks like a complete frame, so you wouldn't guess there was anything to scroll down to.

Mystery solved!
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on September 26, 2011


No way! They snuck them in since the first time I looked! (It opens in a full window for me) but thank you Miko for that bit of detecting ;p
posted by infini at 12:38 AM on September 27, 2011


I kind of suspected that, too, infini, because I just remember that beige bar being totally blank...but I'm willing to accept I might have missed something the first time around, who knows.
posted by Miko at 6:20 AM on September 27, 2011


True, I'll keep an open mind I over looked those captions too

(goes looking for those misplaced keys again)
posted by infini at 6:23 AM on September 27, 2011


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