Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Museum of Really Dead Things

You won't see a trophy room like this in NYC's American Museum of Natural History

Venice's Museo di Storia Naturale is not your typical museum of natural history.

For one thing, there's the long eventful history of the building in which it's located. It's one of the few remaining examples of a Veneto-Byzantine palazzo, and was originally built for the Pesaro family in the 13th century. In 1439, while in the hands of the Marquis of Ferrara, it still retained such eminence among the palazzi on the Grand Canal that it served as lodgings for John VIII Palaeologus, Emperor of Byzantium, and his retinue. This was the first visit ever paid by a Byzantine Emperor to Venice and, according to John Julius Norwich, no expense was spared, no ceremonial flourish overlooked--though by this time poor John's "empire" consisted of little more than Contantinople itself.

In 1621 it became the headquarters and warehouse for Turkish traders in Venice (and ever since has been known as the Fondaco dei Turchi), and in the 19th-century fell into such disrepair that Ruskin feared for its survival. He was right to, though its ultimate demise came not in the form of a collapse but of a rebuilding. The aggressive Austrian renovation of it in the 1850s--which involved, according to Deborah Howard, completely refacing the facade and extensively rebuilding the interior--destroyed much of what it had formerly been.

But its collections, too, are, well, to use an Italian word that seems particularly appropriate to them: particolare. That is, both unique and strange, or odd.

Mesmerized by the documentary on the Ouranosaurus behind them
Like the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the museum of this sort I'm most familiar with, it all starts with dinosaurs. And both the Ouranosaurus nigeriensis skeleton and its presentation are both excellent. There's also a looping documentary (in Italian) about its discovery in 1973 that's so well done that Sandro sits fascinated throughout its entire 10 or 15 minutes every time we visit.

Parts of a huge prehistoric crocodile share the stage with the Ouranosaurus, then, in subsequent rooms, there are skulls of pre-humans and a saber-tooth tiger, nests of dinosaur eggs, fossilized tracks, fish, and giant bones, all well-presented and arranged at the perfect height for kids.

But after that, an education in natural history gives way to one in cultural history--and like so much of the detritus of cultural history (especially colonial history), it ain't pretty.

Or to put it another way, fossils give way to taxidermy, and specimens to inspire further study give way to specimens to inspire future nightmares.

Like an office inspired by Conrad's The Heart of Darkness
The first, largest and brightest of these rooms is filled with souvenirs of colonial Africa: the usual assortment of shields, spears, headwear, and a couple of snarling stuffed animal heads splattered with artificial blood. But also, in a large table-like glass case in the center of the room, the mummified remains of an African (bracketed by a pair of mummified alligators) lies in state with none of the wrappings of an ancient Egytian mummy. His wizened ebony form and grimacing face hold a certain terrifying fascination for Sandro. He stares at it silently, intently, as if grappling with the unpleasant implications contained in the fact that this figure really is (or once was) a human being like us. 

But it's the next, darker room (pictured at top), whose low dramatic lights, red walls and collection of big game trophies really spook him. He trots through it, trying his best to see as little as possible. And if my own pace through it isn't fast enough for him, as it once was not, if I try to actually look at something, he makes me pick him up and, once in my arms, averts his eyes till I carry him to safety.

I believe the first of these rooms contains the collection of 19th-century explorer Giovanni Miani, and the second of Giuseppe de Reali (1877-1937), but as I've never had time to read any of the information in the rooms I can't be sure.

More generally, I think of these rooms as providing a record of how natural curiosity can give way to--or take the form of--a kind of gleeful cruelty.

It's nice to think that the rationality of science and its systematic study of phenomenon is the path out of such cruelty and such excesses, and this is essentially the narrative presented by the museum's website in order to fit these two collections--and other collections of oddities--within the framework of the museum's larger educational aims.

But, in fact, the succession of rooms and exhibits and display cabinets in the museum suggest another more troubling narrative as well, reminding you in the most graphic manner of the excesses and cruelty that rationality alone and the scientific method can also lead to.

That is, just as the story of science and rationality is not a simple straightforward progression from barbarism to humane enlightenment, without switchbacks or ugly detours or backsliding, nor is one's progress through the museum's collections.

A bogus wonder of nature composed of different creatures
On the contrary, just when you think you've left all the gruesomeness behind--as contained in "The Cabinets of Wonder," for example, with their shrunken head and freaks of nature (both real and bogus, as at left)--and with no small sense of relief can devote yourself to twiddling the knobs of a microscope to bring slides of minute and benign plant life into focus, you walk into a room further along and encounter what I've taken to calling a livid Salute to Dissection within tall glass cases.

And once again the pursuit of scientific knowledge appears as little more than than a pornography of domination over the natural world. Though skinned and split and splayed and preserved (sometimes by secret methods, the museum tells us, reintroducing the air of magic into it all), some of the specimens on display appear as nothing less than the embodiment of suffering beyond one's worst imaginings--and a frozen eternal suffering at that. 

2 images of anguish: the lesser, at right, by Francis Bacon
In the case of one small monkey-like mammal, which quite literally wears its heart on its chest like a primate-version of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and whose mouth appears forever ripped open in a mute scream of anguish far more awful to behold than that of Francis Bacon's paintings of Pope Innocent X, it's hard to imagine the level of rational scientific detachment (or sublimation or denial) required to regard this creature with equanimity.

So that a visit to the museum can easily become, in a certain mood, a walking meditation on the way that science and rationality can show us the way out of naive, primitive barbarism--but only to lead us sometimes into another form of barbarism that seems even worse, precisely because of the knowingness and detachment and inhumanity with which it's pursued.

This is the horror the museum holds in store for adults who know, unlike their children, exactly the forms such scientific barbarity have in fact taken in real life. And, as the father of a young child, it makes me sadly anticipate the awful knowledge that every growing child must come into at some point--the luckiest of them through education, not immediate experience--that the cruelty of real life can sometimes actually far exceed the very worst nightmares dreamt in his or her nursery.

But for now at least, Sandro can simply avert his eyes from all this. Together we take in the other exhibits, in which the deadness of the objects is not foremost, and then end up in the bright natural light of the Cetaceans Gallery, with its long glass wall looking out on a beautiful Byzantine wellhead left over from the building's earliest incarnation, and the nearly complete skeleton of a finback whale above our heads, which washed up, already dead, on a shore near Naples in 1928.

Then, happily, and perhaps with a certain relief, we head out into the cold damp open air of Venice and back to life as we know it--and sometimes thankfully don't know it--but live it.


    Here is a link to several drawings I made at the Museo di Storia Naturale, including the sala degli esploratori veneziani

    1. I love your drawings, printperson, and I'm really glad to have had the chance to see them. Thank you for posting a link to them here.