The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind.
All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel.
The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case.
Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them.
In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit:
Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.
Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit […] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural,” and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum.
Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man.
Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction.
Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display.
For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in.
Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘”had it worse,” Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels.
Take, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beagle—“the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics.
If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal […] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences.
Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.”
Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature.
It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note:
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things.
Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.