There is something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling about the bottled specimens on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with so many creatures preserved in formaldehyde. Only a cruel victor exhibits the bodies of his slain enemies as a reminder of the sickening spoils of war, and even crueler is the conqueror who preserves those bodies for the ages: spoils that will never spoil.
The natural history museum in Dublin is popularly called the “Dead Zoo” for its abundance of taxidermy animals, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History has plenty of those on display. But what caught my eye during J and my recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the glass flowers were all those other glass items: a veritable bottled zoo with fish, reptiles, and mollusks preserved in neatly organized glass containers.
There is an odd air of earnestness around these bottles and their display that calls to mind an industrious housewife showing off the preserves she’s canned for the winter. Given a rich harvest, it would be criminal to let your fruit die on the vine; better instead to can until your fingers bleed.
The bottled specimens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are remnants from a harvest that was never sustainable but once made a certain semblance of sense. If the earth is crawling with creatures, why not kill and study some of them rather than letting them die a natural but undocumented death, forever lost to science? The glass bottles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are not just biological specimens; they are historical artifacts from a time when nature seemed fecund enough, you could afford to be extravagant, displaying a mosaic of beetle carapaces…
…or an entire shelf of sparrows.
We no longer dare be so wasteful; we are too mindful of what’s been lost and what we stand to lose. But at a time when we no longer discount the life of even one creature, it would be prodigal to reject the bottled bodies of those that have already been killed.
Go see the bottled zoo at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, wear out your eyes (and your camera batteries) studying them, and then seek out these same creatures in the flesh, in their natural environment and alive. The bodies you see under glass at the Harvard Museum of Natural History died a sacrificial death, slain in the name of science, so they will have died in vain if we don’t learn from them. There’s no more need for specimens and study-skins–no more need to kill, capture, or collect–now that science has succeeded in collecting the whole set.