Cord Riechelmann: The Whole Animal in Science and Literature

Broadly speaking, we can regard “whole animals” as the basic material of natural history museums. Starting with the type specimens of species, natural history museums store the history of whole animal bodies over time. Natural history collections consist not only of one specimen per species in order to allow identification, but also of geographical variations in species that are not extinct, as a rule over different generations.

The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said that work at natural history museums pertains to both the science of history and the science of nature. Natural history museums do not lend themselves to clear-cut distinctions between the humanities and natural sciences. This does not mean, however, that work at natural history museums is not also highly specialized or conducted by means of cutting-edge scientific methods. It only means that the museum – with its research, its collecting and exhibiting activities, its public events, and not least its visitors – is an institution devoted to the history of the science of nature as well as the history of educating the public in this field.

For literary works, the history of natural bodies – from bones to petrified feathers – opens up an infinite range of possibilities for personal perception, individual experience, and imagination, factors which play no role in scientific text production. Literature can visualize or imagine the individual history of bodies with far greater precision and simplicity than any historiography of nature can, since the latter has to abstain from personal speculation.

Whole animals nowadays have as hard a time in literature. There is almost always a significant amount of projection involved when writers approach animals; what they characterize as blithe, brave, or cunning itself lacks any comprehension of such concepts and naturally fails to be appropriately described by them.

This means that the writers who have been invited to participate should liberate the animal from their own projections and put it at the focus of their work, just as the museum does. In my view, the challenge is to pursue an object-oriented way of working that is based on real-life material. In other words, I would expect the writers to look at the animal before looking for words, rather than using animals as projection screens for their own ideas.

However, “unbiased” animals are as rare in science as they are in art. I believe that industrialized science will lose the animals among the infinite statistical and computerized data streams. Given the current state of development, its methods require only genomes, synapses, proteins, and algorithms. In contrast, I see a commonality between natural history museums and art in that both can become the last refuge of whole animals.

My goal, therefore, would be that as part of a process of direct engagement with the museum linguistic forms can be discovered or developed that add experiences, impressions, and ideas to the museum without turning this into an interdisciplinary undertaking.

Cord Riechelmann, curator for literature, is an author, philosopher and biologist