Museum Story

If you go in the back of a back room in the research wing, you may be surprised at what you find.

In the corner of one room, there’s a huddled, mangy mass of fur.  If you squint at it from across the room, you can make out the gleam of two glass eyes.  You see, you don’t want to get too close to it.  It oozes a disreputable air – the skin is stretched over the frame too tightly, and the fur looks as if it’s been steadily munched on by animals too small to see, ever since it was acquired by the museum in the ’20s.

That’s impossible, of course.  Everything (and everyone) that touches the fur will die, if they’re not careful.  This is another reason for not getting too close!  No, it’s not a bizarre museum curse – no King Tut stories here.  It’s only a water buffalo we’re talking about.  The point is that it oozes something other than the opposite of charm.  It’s stuffed (literally) with arsenic.

Of course, the museum can’t get rid of it.  It’s a valuable specimen, along with its valuelessness (even dangerousness).  It’s a historical piece.  The stuffing of taxidermied animals with arsenic is a practice that has gone by the wayside, thankfully.  Display animals now are merely sprinkled with the stuff.  And now, research specimens are simply skinned, their furless bodies and viscera pickled in alcohol.  (We have an entire elephant, in pieces, preserved this way.)  The skin is then dried, stuffed with cotton balls, and sewn up.  The posing is uniform, with no frills.  The researcher shows us rows and rows of voles, mice, and moles.  Their legs point down, their tiny arms raised above their heads in the international signal for drowning.

There’s also the fact that it’s a water buffalo.  What with international import-export agreements, and Rooseveltian pastimes giving way to modern notions of conservation, a museum accepting a shot-in-the-back-of-the-neck water buffalo would almost certainly be illegal.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the balance sheet is in the favor of valuelessness for this poor buffalo.  It’s too deteriorated for tissue samples or even pelt studies, its insides have long been discarded.  So it is relegated to the equivalent of the museum dust-heap: the back of the back rooms.  The buffalo is surrounded by sympathetic roommates, at least.  Hanging on the white cinderblock walls are trophy heads of deer, elk, and moose.  They don’t even have proper mounts.  Their astonished glassy eyes contribute to the feeling that they’ve just stupidly pushed on through the wall in search of greener pastures.

They haven’t found them.  One researcher, passing by, scoffs.  “You’re showing them those things again?  We’d get rid of all of them if we could.”  But that’s the way museums work – once donated, always kept.

2 thoughts to “Museum Story”

  1. Do you know who gets to decide what gets tossed out, if anything ever gets discarded? My archaeology GSI showed us the Michigan relics and it was quite something to see known, proven frauds in the museum. I asked her why the museum bothered keeping them although the relics were proven to be fake a long time ago (and Michigan had turned away all of it too). She said why else if not to educate people. But what about this poor water buffalo which has been pushed to the back room and is, even worse, dangerous? Why do they still keep it? Did you ask?

  2. So deaccesssioning does happen, but it’s rather a lengthy process and museums have to have a really good reason (demonstrating that the item doesn’t fit with their mission is the usual one). I was told that the buffalo was kept because it had good provenance and the records, if not the specimen, were useful. Also because it can be used for educating grad students (this is how we don’t preserve things anymore). But mostly, I got the feeling that it’s because deaccessioning is such a pain.
    Some objects do end up leaving the museum, though. There’s actually a hammerhead shark specimen, originally part of UMMNH’s collections, now decorating the wall of a bar in Grand Rapids. That’s a pretty funny story!

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