The Mutter Museum — a freaky fantastic collection of medical curiosities — is trying to restore and preserve a collection of 139 skulls that were once used to debunk the pseudoscience of phrenology. You can help by adopting a skull for $200. — Maggie
Back in 2011, I posted about the planned Center for PostNatural History, the Pittsburgh, PA wunderkammer of organisms altered by humans, from GloFish® to GMO corn to a genetically engineered goat. It's the brainchild of Carnegie Mellon University art professor Richard Pell. This week's Science News includes a feature about the museum, now open to the public.
This weekend you can get free admission to museums across North America, as part of Smithsonian Magazine's Museum Day. Unfortunately, there are limitations and this isn't just a bunch of museums throwing open their doors, no holds barred. To participate, you have to go to the Museum Day website and get a free ticket (one per household). The ticket will get you and a friend into the participating museum of your choice. — Maggie
The Black Museum of Scotland Yard is a cabinet of crime curiosities. Founded c.1874, it contains evidence, contraband, and artifacts ostensibly displayed to help educate new law enforcement officers. The collection includes the above letter allegedly written by Jack the Ripper and sent "from hell", umbrellas outfitted with secret guns, and the pots (in a kitchen crime scene recreation) that serial killer Dennis Nilsen used to boil his victims. Unfortunately, the Black Museum is closed to the public but that may be changing. Meanwhile, please enjoy this 1952 radio series hosted by Orson Welles, featuring an item from the museum each episode and a dramatic retelling of the dark tale behind it. "The Black Museum" (Internet Archive)
This is the second story in a four-part, weekly series on taxonomy and speciation. It's meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out!
On the sixth floor of New York's American Museum of Natural History — far away from the throngs of tourists and packs of schoolkids — there is a cold, white room, filled with white, metal cabinets.
The cabinets are full of dead things; leeches, sea anemones, lobsters ... any kind of invertebrate you can imagine. Even a giant squid. All of them have been carefully preserved. Each soaks in its own, luxuriant ethanol bath. Here they sit, some for a hundred years or more, waiting for scientists to pull them out into the light.
It's a bit like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for slimy, crawly, spineless things. There are collections like this all over the world, containing every species of animal, plant, and microscopic organism. Together, they serve as a record of Earth's biodiversity, a library of life. In them, you'll find more than just random specimens. Some of the individuals are special. Called "type specimens", they serve as ambassadors for their species, real-world models that define what each species is. For instance, the leech species Myxobdella maculata is both a group of leeches and exactly one leech — A leech that I got to meet on a behind-the-scenes tour with invertebrate curators Estefania Rodriguez and Mark Siddall.
Famed grindcore band Napalm Death were slated to play a unique concert at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday night, but the museum cancelled the show fearing that "the high level of decibels generated by the performance would damage the historic fabric of the building." The group was to play through a sculptural ceramic sound system built by artist Keith Harrison. The sculpture was expected to crumble under the volume of the performance.
"Sound as a weapon - or a weapon of change - is a very interesting concept and I think that the whole process of our sound gradually degrading clay sculptures is captivating," Napalm Death vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway said last week. "The noise element of music should never be understated and this exhibition at the V&A will hopefully demonstrate that music can do interesting things beyond the realms of clipped production techniques."
According to the V&A, the museum "is committed to an exciting programme of exhibitions and events but the safety of our visitors and building remains our priority at all times."
Above, Napalm Death's "Suffer the Children" from their 1990 album Harmony Corruption, the first album to feature Greenway on vocals.
Chicago's Field Museum isn't just a science museum. It's also a research center, especially for archaeologists and anthropologists who come to the museum to make use of its extensive collections of artifacts — only a tiny fraction of which is on public display at any given time. Unfortunately, the museum is currently up to its neck in debt, and part of the current administrators' plan to deal with that problem is to restructure the research department and cut back on curators and staffing there.It's hard to understand why this has the archaeology community so on edge unless you really understand what the Field Museum has in those vast Indiana-Jones-inspiring storage collections. Here's Michael Smith, an archaeologist who studies the ancient Aztecs, explaining why the Field Museum is so important to his work and that of his colleagues.
The photo above shows an Aztec flute in the museum. I have excavated many small fragments of these objects in Aztec domestic middens, but never an entire example. When one just has the animal's ear, or a segment with a hole, or a fragment of the mouthpiece, it is hard to figure out just what these are pieces of. It is through study of the whole flutes in the Field Museum or other museums that I learned to interpret the tiny fragments of musical instruments, and of many other unusual items, from my excavations. Or consider our knowledge of Aztec music. Scholars such as Adje Both have reconstructed aspects of Aztec music by studying flutes like this and by playing them (and recording the tones and doing analyses of the sound diagrams). Museums are the only places with the resources for such research, and the Field Museum is one of the most important in the U.S. and the world.
Last week, I got to visit the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It's an amazing collection — well worth driving out of your way to see. I was expecting just a selection of different animal skeletons. The actual collection was a lot bigger and more awesome than I'd guessed it would be, and included some really nice exhibits on evolutionary adaptation, convergent evolution, deformed skeletons of both humans and animals, and the process of stripping a body down to a clean and shiny bone structure.
One of the things I found really fascinating was the skeletal features that you can't see just by looking at the outside of an animal. Take this Indian Rhinoceros, for instance. You'll notice that his horn is not a part of the skull. That's because the horn isn't really bone. The "horn" isn't a horn, at all.
Horns are made of bone. They're hard on the outside thanks to a thin layer of keratin — the stuff that makes up your fingernails and hair. But the majority of that material is living bone. Rhinos, on the other hand, have "horns" that are almost 100% keratin. They're really thick bundles of protein fibers.
That's a pretty well-known fact. But it's one thing to know it intellectually, and another thing entirely to see the place where that keratin horn attaches to the animal's actual bone structure. The intricate, lacy network of spongy bone was absolutely fascinating to me. It reminded me of the way ceramic artists will attach one piece of clay to another by scoring little cuts into both pieces and then applying a layer of thin, goopy clay that cements the cuts together as it dries. Seeing the rhino skull really drove home the idea that the "horn" was something else entirely. The horn was attached to the bone. It wasn't part of the bone.
New York's Museum of Modern Art has acquired 14 videogames that will be playable in a gallery there beginning in March 2013. According to Paola Antonelli, the MoMA's senior curator of architecture and design, these titles are "the seedbed for an initial wish list of about 40 to be acquired in the near future, as well as for a new category of artworks." I'm delighted that my favorite game, Pac-Man (1980), was part of the initial acquisition. The others include: Tetris (1984), Another World (1991), Myst (1993), SimCity 2000 (1994), vib-ribbon (1999), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), EVE Online (2003), Dwarf Fortress (2006), Portal (2007), flOw (2006), Passage (2008), and Canabalt (2009). "Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters"
Here's a big difference between nature and a natural history museum: In the wild, when you find a skeleton of anything, it's seldom arranged in a neat, orderly, anatomically correct manner. Even if an animal dies in captivity, nature won't just conveniently produce a skeleton suitable for mounting.
So how do museums get the perfect skeletal specimens that you see behind glass?
The answer: Lots and lots and lots of tedious work. Plus the assistance of a few thousand flesh-eating bugs.
This video from the University of Michigan traces the creation of a bat skeleton, from a fleshy dead bat in a jar, to a neat, little set of bones in a display case. It's painstaking (and moderately disgusting) work. Sort of like building model cars, if the Ford Mustang had realistic organ tissue.
Today, when almost every major city in America has a science museum with hands-on, interactive exhibits, that particular format of education seems pretty obvious. But it wasn't always.
In 1969, Frank Oppenheimer opened the Exploratorium, the first American museum to use these now-familiar educational tools. The experiment was sort of a combination of the skills Oppenheimer had learned as a high school science teacher (he spent several years teaching school after being blackballed from research science due to Red Scare paranoia) and what he saw happening in European science museums of the time.
Oppenheimer would have turned 100 years old today. Celebrate with this video, where he explains the ideas that led to the creation of the Exploratorium. It's a fascinating look at the once-revolutionary origins of a paradigm that was so successful, we now take it completely for granted.