Cover image for Animals on Display: The Creaturely in Museums, Zoos, and Natural History Edited by Liv Emma Thorsen, Karen A. Rader, and Adam Dodd

Animals on Display

The Creaturely in Museums, Zoos, and Natural History

Edited by Liv Emma Thorsen, Karen A. Rader, and Adam Dodd


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06070-5

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06071-2

232 pages
6" × 9"
25 b&w illustrations

Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures

Animals on Display

The Creaturely in Museums, Zoos, and Natural History

Edited by Liv Emma Thorsen, Karen A. Rader, and Adam Dodd

From the eighteenth century’s preserved monsters to the twenty-first century’s images of zoo polar bear Knut, the authors of Animals on Display foreground representations—not as transparent or objective acts but as visible and palpable forces working at micro and macro levels to shape cultural understandings and relationships to animals. After this book, the reader cannot look at commonplace images and figures of animals without thinking of how they are enframed and to what ends.


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
John Berger famously said that “in the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared.” Those who share his view contend that animals have been removed from our daily lives and that we have been removed from the daily lives of animals. This has been the impetus for a plethora of representational practices that, broadly conceived, work to fill in the gap between humans and animals. Ironically, many of these may ultimately intensify the very nostalgia, distance, and ignorance they were devised to remedy. Animals on Display presents nine lively and engaging essays on the historical representation and display of nonhuman animals. Looking at a wide range of examples, many of them now little known, the essays situate them in their historical and sociocultural contexts, while speaking to the ongoing importance of making animals visible for the arrangement and sustenance of human-animal relations.

Aside from the editors, the contributors are Brita Brenna, Guro Flinterud, Henry A. McGhie, Brian W. Ogilvie, Nigel Rothfels, and Lise Camilla Ruud.

From the eighteenth century’s preserved monsters to the twenty-first century’s images of zoo polar bear Knut, the authors of Animals on Display foreground representations—not as transparent or objective acts but as visible and palpable forces working at micro and macro levels to shape cultural understandings and relationships to animals. After this book, the reader cannot look at commonplace images and figures of animals without thinking of how they are enframed and to what ends.
“This book provides interesting new insight into and analysis of the human-animal relationship. The different chapters show striking examples of the ways in which this relationship has been constructed through the objectification of animals on display, most powerfully exemplified through their presentation as ‘specimens’ rather than individuals. At the same time, an underlying message is the importance animals have in the lives of humans, which is one reason why their lives (and deaths) should be taken into consideration. Most importantly, though, and as the title suggests, through the analysis in this book animals are made visible as individuals with intrinsic value.”
The case studies in Animals on Display—on subjects ranging from early modern caterpillars to the cyber-bear Knut—remind us how real animals have been implicated in practices of display. As a collection, this volume is both unusual and praiseworthy for its success in combining an uncompromising historicity with a deft engagement of post-Berger theories of representation.
Animals on Display explores the uncharted region between cultural studies and the history of science, between museology and animal studies. These are strange lands, and we meet wonderful beasts: monstrous pigs, tame polar bears, colossal elephants, colorful butterflies, rare seagulls, Herculean dogs, captive grasshoppers, and more. As our fearless guides, the authors shed new light not only on the physicality of animals (both peri- and postmortem) but also on their representations. With previously unpublished illustrations and energetic prose, this important volume is an insightful exploration of the relationship between the visibility and materiality of animals from the Enlightenment to the twenty-first century. Historians, anthropologists, curators, and animal studies scholars will enjoy following the editors and their lively herd on the eventful journey through the pages of Animals on Display.”
“[Animals on Display] demonstrates how our cultural imaginations are tethered to the material reality of animals, insisting that such representations can never fully escape the social and cultural contexts in which they were originally created and are now viewed. It also shows how powerful connections with animals on display, like those at the American Museum of Natural History, allow visitors an intimate, if fleeting, glimpse of previously living, breathing organisms.”

Liv Emma Thorsen is Professor in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo.

Karen A. Rader is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Adam Dodd is an independent researcher whose interests focus on the role that visioning technologies have played in developing conceptions of nonhuman animals.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Making Animals Visible

Adam Dodd, Karen A. Rader, and Liv Emma Thorsen

Part I Preserving

1 Six Monstrous Pigs: Animal Monsters and Museum Practices in the Eighteenth-Century El Real Gabinete de Historia Natural

Lise Camilla Ruud

2 The Frames of Specimens: Glass Cases in Bergen Museum Around 1900

Brita Brenna

3 Preserving History: Collecting and Displaying in Carl Akeley’s In Brightest Africa

Nigel Rothfels

Part II Authenticating

4 The Pleasure of Describing: Art and Science in August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof’s Monthly Insect Entertainment

Brian W. Ogilvie

5 Images, Ideas, and Ideals: Thinking with and about Ross’s Gull

Henry A. McGhie

6 A Dog of Myth and Matter: Barry the Saint Bernard in Bern

Liv Emma Thorsen

Part III Interacting

7 Popular Entomology and Anthropomorphism in the Nineteenth Century: L. M. Budgen’s Episodes of Insect Life

Adam Dodd

8 Interacting with The Watchful Grasshopper; or, Why Live Animals Matter in Twentieth-Century Science Museums

Karen A. Rader

9 Polar Bear Knut and His Blog

Guro Flinterud

About the Contributors



Making Animals Visible

Adam Dodd, Karen A. Rader, and Liv Emma Thorsen

Visitors entering the American Museum of Natural History’s “Hall of Biodiversity” are immediately presented with a 100-foot-long wall containing over a thousand objects, most of which are animal specimens and models (fig. I.1)—but what, exactly, do these visitors see? Exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum sought to combine emotion and education in the display. “The goal,” he wrote, “was to have people love the wall, love what they see, and love nature, and then confront them with what we do to nature, asking them ‘why are we so cruel to it.’” Indeed, shortly after its opening in 1998, a reviewer pronounced the hall a “stunning visual and intellectual design” that “instructs by seduction,” demonstrating “the intricately interrelated beauty of life on earth.” But can this kind of looking at animals—in museum dioramas, zoo displays, and film or television programs—ever be taken at face value? Two decades ago, John Berger condescendingly declared all such modes of envisioning animals to be “compensatory,” reflecting how marginalized animal lives have become in late capitalist societies. Rephrasing the original question, then: what does it mean to say humans see anything about the animals on display in this museum and in other natural history museums?

Ways of representing animals are crucial to ways of thinking about, and ultimately interacting with, animals themselves. M. Norton Wise has observed that “much of the history of science could be written in terms of making things visible—or familiar things visible in new ways.” Likewise, for urban, industrialized societies, practices of making animals visible have become essential to the diverse relationships human beings in those societies have formed with nonhuman animals. Although nonhuman animals exist independently of our beliefs about them, it makes little sense to speak of them in ways that attempt to locate them outside human culture. As Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence has observed, “Whenever a human being confronts a living creature, whether in actuality or by reflection, the ‘real-life’ animal is accompanied by an inseparable image of that animal’s essence that is made up of, or influenced by, preexisting individual, cultural, or societal conditioning.”

Within the humanities, ways of attending to, or even speaking about, the “real animal” run the risk of becoming terminally problematized. The collected essays in this volume do not attempt to solve this dilemma, but instead map out specific ways in which real animals have become inseparable from a variety of human modes and practices of display: museums, illustrated books, even the Internet. Although it may seem, Berger famously observed, that “in the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared,” we suggest that human–animal relationships have continued to become increasingly complex, in ways that are not always attributable to the so-called disappearance of animals. Certainly, we can see the last two centuries as a period in which animals have been removed from the daily lives of many, but just as certainly can we see this period as one in which many have been removed from the daily lives of animals themselves. Regardless of the direction it has taken, this undeniable alteration of a historical proximity to animals has been the impetus for a plethora of representational practices that, broadly conceived, work to fill in the gap between humans and animals—to help “bring us closer,” not necessarily to the animal itself but to the animal as imagined within a historio-cultural space. Ironically, many of these productions may ultimately work to exacerbate the very nostalgia, distance, and ignorance they were devised to remedy. What is certain, however, is that these productions represent an ongoing process of making animals visible.

Emerging from an international multidisciplinary research project based at the University of Oslo, “Animals as Objects and Animals as Signs,” this collection represents a range of responses to a set of key questions about animal materiality and display that cross museum studies, cultural history, history of science, and environmental studies: How are animals transformed into objects? How do animals become signs? How do aesthetics intersect with the standardization of animals? What are the ideological, cultural, and pragmatic dimensions of these processes?

If we encounter animals as objects or signs more often than we encounter animals themselves—or even if we have mournfully lost the ability to conceive of an authentic and direct animal encounter—this surely says something about our inability to live in any way without animals. We need their bodies as much as we need our own thoughts about their bodies, images of their bodies, models of their bodies. Animal bodies are intrinsic to the human imagination; indeed, the oldest surviving images produced by human beings, rendered some twenty-six thousand years ago, are images of animals. Yet it is the ongoing uncertainty, particularly pressing in these times of enhanced concern for the natural environment, of how we should think about and interact with animals that inform the essays collected here, all of which are motivated by a desire to augment our understanding of the animals, real and imagined, that surround us from infancy until old age. Just as the infant’s attitude toward animals will differ from the octogenarian’s, so, too, do cultural attitudes toward animals change over time as knowledge about them is gained, lost, recovered, reshaped, and reconstructed. But if, as Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman suggest, the “how” and “why” of thinking with animals deserves greater attention, so, too, do the relations between animal materiality and animal representation. For even while this materiality is often modified, distorted, obscured, or erased across a range of representational practices and institutions, it nevertheless underpins human relationships to animals themselves.

Such observations, far from exclusively inhabiting the lofty heights of philosophical discourse, are of direct relevance to both animals themselves and the publics that are literally constructed around their display. This was a key concern of an art exhibition devised as part of the “Animals and Objects and Animals as Signs” project at the University of Oslo. Designed by Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, and titled Animal Matters, the exhibit addressed some of the diverse and often problematic methods of representing animals that have developed since the eighteenth century. Including drawings, photographs, sculptures, motion pictures, preserved animal bodies, and scientific instruments, it sought not merely to represent animals, but to present some of the ways in which animals are themselves represented—to draw attention to representational practices as they manifest across a range of sites and contexts, including the art gallery itself.

The institutional sites and spatial contexts examined by authors in the present volume served as a preliminary point of departure for the design of the Animal Matters exhibit. In some cases, such as zoos and natural history museums, the materiality of the animal was foregrounded and privileged to emphasize how it could come to define the animal itself, even when enclosure fences, Plexiglas covers, or glass cases frame human interactions with it. In other instances, such as illustrations and photography, the animal’s presence was interpreted as at once more one dimensional and more spectral. Within the modern tradition of Western natural history, a strong emphasis on realism has oriented representations of animals according to accepted conventions of what is most lifelike—in short, animals as they really are. Yet upon closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that what is ultimately presented are representations of animals as they really are for the producers of the representations themselves, for even while these representations aspire to empiricism and objectivity from the perspective of a detached observer, they fail to escape their socio-historical context. Paradoxically, African elephants have outlived all efforts to hunt, preserve, and display them in vaunted galleries—so they have lives as well as afterlives —but what remains on the Field Museum floor in Chicago, for example, is as much a biography of elephants as it is of their creators.

As scholars, we are acutely aware that this paradox applies to us, too—and so we have organized this volume in ways that draw attention to it and demand further reflection. We have grouped the essays according to what we see as a set of recurring practices used to make animals visible—preserving, authenticating, and interacting—in order to showcase how these practices are both firmly anchored to specific historical projects and moments and dynamically relocating across and between them.

Questions of cultural values and biological identity are acute in the projects of understanding specific animal bodies in specific contexts: a new specimen of bird in a museum drawer, a captive animal in a zoo or presented on a blog, an infamous animal display in a natural history collection. At the same time, these animals become iconically visible only through occupying multiple and contradictory cultural and temporal spaces. Taking the animals described here as both unique instances and embedded in a larger, interconnected history of representational practices, we suggest, illuminates a variety of critical aspects inherent to our own conceptions and understanding of what animals are, what they mean, and what they should and should not be “used for.”


Lise Camilla Ruud opens the volume with an examination of how six preserved monstrous pigs became objects of value and exchange in the museum culture of eighteenth-century Spain. As historians of natural history have recognized, “monsters” (deformed animals) served an essential function in the grand project of normalization, rationalization, and disenchantment that typified the Enlightenment. An emergent, modern scientific culture, oriented by a new and emboldened empiricism, sought to reveal the fundamental order of Nature as a way to make sense of its often-overwhelming diversity. Integral to this process was the ability to demonstrate exceptions to the “rules” that governed the morphology of normally developed animals. Ruud shows that the emphasis of monstrous difference ultimately served an overarching agenda that stressed the conformity of nature to a visible plan. But the monstrous pigs did more than this; they also became commodities, gifts, and gestures, elevating the social status of their donors and recipients, many of whom were eager to associate themselves with the prestigious world of institutionalized natural history. Each of Ruud’s pigs has its own story, and each is an explicitly unique individual. Yet, taken together, they can be seen as the unlikely cast of a particular chapter of eighteenth-century Spanish history: dead and preserved in glass jars, yet instrumental in a nexus of human relationships, and indeed reverberating with other treatments of animal monstrosity throughout Enlightenment Europe.

Moving into the nineteenth century, Brita Brenna turns attention to the emergence of the glass case (or vitrine) and its impact on the preservation, display, and reception of museum objects—including taxidermied animals. Her primary focus is on how the localized collection and display practices of a relatively small and unknown natural history museum signified wider ambitions of universalized methods—a turn-of-the-century instance of “thinking globally, acting locally,” as it were. Bergen Museum, on the western coast of Norway, was eager to participate in the burgeoning museum scene of the late nineteenth century, perhaps most illustriously exemplified in Europe by the British Museum (Natural History). Central to the nineteenth-century museum was glass—today a ubiquitous material routinely taken for granted, but during the nineteenth century both a source of novel fascination and a substance enabling a variety of previously impossible practices. Beyond the specific glass case of a particular display (as discussed by Thorsen in this volume), Brenna emphasizes the general importance of glass for allowing displays of rare and valuable objects in full view of the public without the direct assistance or instruction of museum staff. Often, however, any specific stuffed animal behind or within glass, while visually arresting, was envisioned by museum curators as merely an illustration of the accompanying authoritative text explaining its taxonomy, habits, habitat, and so on. Although Brenna foregrounds the historical example of Bergen Museum, her essay operates against a more nebulous backdrop, in which the subtle intangibility of glass, and its profound effects on how we look (through it) at objects and things, shapes a modern visual culture and its complex, problematic inclusion of the animal subject, linking up with, for example, the monstrous pigs of El Real Gabinete de Historia Natural discussed by Ruud.

Nigel Rothfels takes up the various material and interpretive problems inherent in preserving animals through an exploration of the work of Carl Akeley. Akeley—widely regarded as one of the most accomplished taxidermists of all time, with numerous works housed and displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York—was working at the turn of the nineteenth century, a time when the human impact on the prosperity and indeed survival of many nonhuman animals was beginning to become apparent. Rothfels engages directly with the central paradox of Akeley: motivated by the desire to prevent many of the most majestic species of mammals from going extinct, Akeley undertook to hunt, kill, and stuff them for the benefit of science and the general information of the public. Unlike numerous contemporary hunters, for whom displays of bravado, conquest, and the thrill of the chase were almost all consuming, Akeley was mournful of the steady disappearance of animals, suggesting a particular context for his taxidermy. Akeley’s stuffed animals are not so much evidence of domination and defeat (i.e., trophies), but rather can be read as poignant signs of the fragility of the species embodied by the particular specimens displayed. Rothfels shows how, in particular, an informed reading of Akeley’s memoir can shed further light on his taxidermy—reminding us that the “meaning” of the animal (or its effigy) is always shaped by a diversity of contingent factors, and that in some cases, relationships that form between humans and animals may constitute legitimate paradoxes that cannot be easily (or perhaps ever) resolved.


Brian Ogilvie examines how art and science intersected around very small animals—insects—in the eighteenth century. Early modern and Enlightenment studies of insects faced the challenge of making animals visible in a unique way, since their subjects are often too small to be seen, or seen well, with the unassisted eye. This meant that standardized forms of magnification—through the lens and on the page—were necessary for the production of authentic portrayals. These methods did not develop overnight, but rather emerged over time; indeed, they are still developing, and continue to marry aesthetic concerns with pragmatic requirements. As most historians now recognize (though it bears repeating nevertheless), art and science were not considered mutually exclusive disciplines during the Enlightenment period; indeed, the pursuit of one required the skills of the other, especially when it came to studying and representing insects. The need to establish some validity for the study of insects inspired strikingly detailed illustration, a practice that began to gain considerable momentum during the eighteenth century with images as beautiful as they were accurate. August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof, the central figure of Ogilvie’s essay, emerges during this time as a significant proponent of not just what would later be labeled as the science of entomology, but what might also be called an insect aesthetic. We find here an exemplary case of art, science, and theology converging not only in the animal, but also in its “world.” The aesthetics of butterflies and beetles that Rösel developed simultaneously authenticated the “lifeworlds” of the insects he observed and the methods used to observe them. Insects were to be understood (and portrayed) both as specimens detached from their unfamiliar, subvisible “world,” and as emblematic of that world itself, which was becoming increasingly accessible to those with the technology and natural history skills required to explore and document it.

Few material practices have changed both natural history and animal–human “lifeworlds” more than exploration, so accordingly, Henry McGhie turns to a case study of one particular animal—Ross’s Gull—to demonstrate these important historical shifts. McGhie considers the problem of what counted as knowledge of this rare bird—was it enough to see a well-preserved specimen in a museum drawer, or was it necessary to travel to the Arctic and encounter the animal in its natural environment? McGhie shows how the debate around the scientific naming of animals reflected new modes of engagement: that this bird was later referred to by association with its discoverer, the quintessential Polar explorer James Ross, rather than by its physical characteristics (such as its trademark rosy breast), pointed to different fields of activity in which particular animals retained (or, in some cases, lost) their global “reputation.” Ross’s Gull, McGhie concludes, provides a powerful example of how scientific and cultural practices collaborate to transform animals from complex, multiple creatures into standardized, singular idealizations.

Liv Emma Thorsen confronts the fact and artifact of Barry, the most famous Saint Bernard rescue dog. Thorsen finds the stuffed Barry, on display in the Natural History Museum of Bern since 1814, to be materially emblematic of the “Barrylore” surrounding the animal. Thorsen shows how, through the practices of taxidermy, the natural and cultural history of the Saint Bernard intersected—and in turn, how this museum specimen came to represent both the iconic “faithful dog” and the representative type of its breed. Literally disembodied, with the skull and skin of “the real” Barry now housed in different parts of the museum, Barry’s display nevertheless retains an aura of authenticity. Because (rather than in spite) of how this animal (now behind glass) materializes the imagined Saint Bernard, it continues to inspire modern natural history museum visitors.


But what counts as natural history, Adam Dodd reminds us, is dynamic and contextual—so there is more to the popular nineteenth-century accounts of insects generated by L. M. Budgen than might first appear to a modern reader. In the representational conventions of these stories, Dodd finds the origins of common anthropomorphic portrayals of insects—but also, a different mode of knowledge making, one that Budgen saw herself as creating with, rather than transplanting onto, animals. Budgen’s insect books, much like Rösel’s more than a hundred years earlier, navigated complex boundaries between subjective engagement with and objective distancing from nature—and from them, as with all popular natural history, their contemporary audiences drew moral and allegorical truths. To the extent that we can see these insect stories as comprising, rather than constructing, a “lifeworld” (and in that sense, as representing a continuation of the conventions visible in Rösel, as examined by Ogilvie in this volume), Dodd suggests we can resist static “mechanomorphic” interpretations of animal–human relations. Perhaps above all, Budgen’s unique authorial mode encourages, and allows, imaginative and fruitful interaction with living insects, beyond the pages of the book.

Karen Rader’s essay on The Watchful Grasshopper brings us to the twentieth century in order to consider the live animal’s uneasy place within the educational agenda of the interactive science museum. The grasshopper, a human agricultural pest, here elicits sympathy as the living subject of a scientific experiment controlled by museum visitors. Rader’s examination of this peculiar and largely overlooked case of insect–human interaction illustrates another chapter in a long and complicated history of cultural mediations of insects that evoke (often unsettling) emotions in the human observer; there are contiguities, for example, with the insects of bygone centuries discussed in both Ogilvie’s and Dodd’s essays. Intended as a public educational installation dealing with the insect’s visual perception, the exhibit aroused a largely negative response from museum visitors who, as if suddenly provoked to ask themselves “What is it like to be an insect?” protested against the inhumane treatment of an anonymous arthropod. The Watchful Grasshopper draws attention to the important role that representational conventions play in mediating human–animal relationships; the ways in which we think, and indeed feel, about animals are very often responses to how our expectations intersect with the ways animals themselves are presented to us for consideration. For this reason, Rader explains, live animal displays in museums have both “transgressive and contradictory possibilities.”

Finally, Guro Flinterud documents how an older form of animal–human relations, that between a zookeeper and his or her animal charges, has been transformed by new media—specifically, the Internet. The polar bear Knut, born in 2006 at the Berlin Zoo and abandoned by his mother, was initially presented to the world as a seemingly endless stream of images: the cute cub, being hand-reared by a human (male) caregiver. Within this context, Flinterud examines how Knut was transformed in cyberspace through the narratives of blogging. Interactions between Knut (now represented as a blogger himself) and his online fan community (who constructed themselves around this mythical animal representation) made explicit the contradictory cultural values and opinions connected to the polar bear in the early twentieth century. Such attention, ultimately, was not enough to save Knut—he died at the age of four, collapsing into a pool of water in his enclosure, surrounded by zoo visitors, and within forty-eight hours, amateur video of his death appeared online. That this particular animal mattered—to many humans—seemed never to be in question. But Flinterud’s analysis, like the others in this volume, encourages us to tend better to how animal representations both shape and connect us to the living, breathing, thinking animals behind such representations—that is, to the very matter of the animal itself.