History of Art


The Culture of Preservation

Further Information

The research network is concerned with preserved natural objects, in particular with anatomical wet or dry preparations and taxidermy as well as the discourses surrounding them. Preceded by almost a century of artistic interventions and experiments, research on the material culture of science has been a thriving field in the history and anthropology of science for the past two decades. This area has recently also become of interest for historians of art and visual culture since it resonates with current research on "things" or "objects" in various fields of the humanities. By bringing together scholars from art and cultural history, history of science, anthropology or museum studies, as well as zoologists, taxidermists, curators, and artists we will consider the hybrid status of these things as concurrently scientific, cultural and aesthetic. Our aim is to contribute to these topical debates and to take them further by enabling an interdisciplinary agenda in the understanding, handling and display of pickled skin, organs, or other body fragments, as well as mounted animal skin. This will include a continuous reflection on the relation between human and animal and a discussion of ethical and legal issues concerning the appropriate display of human remains.

The aesthetics of wet-preparations range from the arrangement of the observed thing within a container, the symmetries sought via the choice of glass jars, the latter's material qualities such as transparency and their ability to reflect light, to the arrangement of groups of such objects. These displays might arouse wonder and attention, paper over thoughts of death and decay, prompt associations with religious relics or with precious jewels sparkling in a shop window. While morbid formations were perceived under the category of the monstrous and curious in Early Modern times, late eighteenth and nineteenth-century medicine would consider them as pathological and prefer displays that evoke clarity and sobriety. An arrangement in a row might alternatively suggest variety among the similar, repetition or the idea of evolution. As for taxidermy, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, mounted animals were typically staged in a frozen movement (rather than asleep for example) and sometimes kept in a habitat diorama in order to suggest liveliness and a natural environment. In manuals the act of rendering a deceased animal lifelike is often mystified as an overcoming of death. A precondition of the seeming liveliness is the attempt to hide the craft of the taxidermist since traces of work processes would give away the fact that the stuffed animal is the leftover of a dead corpse. In this respect flawed taxidermies prove particularly interesting cases, since they show obvious signs of human intervention. Usually hidden away in the storerooms of museums, they not only (willingly or not) dismantle mythologies around taxidermy but also raise the issue of their own right to be shown or preserved.

If both the arrangement of taxidermied animals and the staging of body parts in many wet preparations suggest that nature just displays itself, it is precisely this alleged self-evidence that shall be questioned. Focusing on the materiality of preparations we will look at their status as very particular representations: three-dimensional fabrications that are both, the "real thing" and a three-dimensional representation. These aspects are intertwined from the very moment when a fragment of nature is singled out, chosen for preparation and hence turned into an object for study. We will investigate these material and semantic transformations in which the things under discussion are involved, from their making to their various historic and contemporary displays and usages. The project will also consider the role artists played, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, in calling attention to the aesthetics and politics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural history museums and to the techniques of preparation, It will also look at the involvement of artists in recent re-designs of these institutions.

Prepared specimens offer a unique opportunity to reflect on issues of conservation and preservation and their ethics in a broader sense and raise a variety of questions to be addressed by the network: Why do some cultures preserve elements of nature? How does this relate to environmental notions of conservation and extinction? Should flawed specimens be disposed of? Should human remains be on display or rather be buried? Can museums as a whole be considered cultural preserves? Should we preserve the preserves? And last but not least: Do we really need to embalm everything?

Selected bibliography