Does pickling animals get your goat?
By Jack Ashby, on 2 September 2011
Part of my job is to be responsible for our visitors’ experience in the Museum, and this includes any labels, marketing or online content. In the interest of accuracy, avoiding typos, and indeed making sure that one person’s opinions (mine) don’t come across as fact or institutional positions, I always ask a colleague to read anything of importance before I publish.
That person is often Mark our Curator. Even though I’ve been doing it throughout my career, six years of which have been alongside Mark, he has started objecting to certain phrases that I use. I’m interested to know what you think.
He doesn’t like it when I say a specimen is “pickled” instead of “preserved in fluid”. Nor is he keen on “stuffed” instead of “taxidermy” or “mounted skin preparation”. The reason I use them is that they flow off the tongue a bit better, are shorter (which is crucial when writing labels) and people know what they mean. Certainly fewer people would know what I meant by a “wet specimen” or a “spirit specimen” – two other names for objects preserved in alcohol-filled jars.
The point he is making is that saying “stuffed” or “pickled” downplays the level of curatorial skill involved in preparing such specimens, which is certainly significant. It denigrates the whole sector and belittles the museums and their objects. In a field that is, thankfully, becoming ever-increasingly professionalised, are natural history museum staff disrespected by such candid terminology? Or, alternatively, is it just long-winded jargon, of the type that Mark himself campaigned against in a previous blog.
I really don’t know.
I do know, however, that visitors respond with a smile when I say “look at this pickled platypus” more than when I say “look at this platypus preserved in fluid”. I think that such phrases are useful in reducing the intellectual barriers that are inherent to museums – it makes them more accessible. In my mind, they don’t care I might have slighted the skills used in making it.
An important question is, though, do they consider it with less respect or reverence? And if so, is that a bad thing? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost the wow factor.
Since Mark started rolling his eyes at it I have almost dropped them from my vocabulary in case he is right that it really does make our profession look bad. But I’m not sure that he is.
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.