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The Species Seekers Quiz: A Movement to Make Museums New

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2012

What spurred the 19th-century “new museum” movement?

1.  Generous donations from American “robber baron” railroad magnates 

2.  The British urge to out-compete the museums of rival nations

3.  Dermestid beetles, which ruined many old museums

4.  Advances in taxidermy

And the answer is

 

Advances in taxidermy.

During the second half of the 19th century, taxidermists had rapidly become more skillful and they now wanted not merely to educate but to excite the public with dioramas rendering dramatic scenes from the wild.

In 1869, the French naturalist and specimen dealer Jules Verreaux depicted a lion rearing up to claw an Arab courier down from the back of a camel (seen below), an exhibit that drew crowds to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

A few years later, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., displayed “Fight in the Tree-Tops,” a scene of “immense and hideously ugly male orang utans fighting furiously,” with blood gushing from the wound where one sank his fangs into the other.  Critics worried about a certain lack of scientific probity.  But a defender responded, “If you cannot interest the visitor you cannot instruct him; if he does not care to know what an animal is, or what an object is used for, he will not read the label.”

Recreating a moment from nature in a good diorama required fresh skins of the featured species, and also all the attendant details of its habitat, down to rocks and grass.  So instead of simply buying specimens, or accepting them as gifts, museum curators and taxidermists now had to go out and become field collectors themselves.  It was the beginning of the “new museum movement,” and the comprehensive survey collections they brought back served the needs of showmen and scientists alike.  Read more in The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff.

 

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