Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Dead Zoo

It's amazing how much you can learn about life from the dead.

While that sounds like a promotion for "CSI" or one of the other coroner/detective TV shows, it was a thought that jumped into my mind today when we went to the "Dead Zoo."

Dublin has two zoos -- the normal kind with elephants and monkeys in cages, and the "Dead Zoo" downtown. It's actually called the National Museum of Natural History, but everyone seems to know it by its colorful nickname.

Inside are glass cases and open displays of stuffed animals, bones and specimins floating in jars of alcohol. While many American museums have moved away from the clinical look in favor of dioramas showing the stuff creatures in "natural" settings, the Dead Zoo is organized more like a library. All the apes are in one case, the deer in another, etc.

As cold as that seems, it is a great way to see how animals are related to each other and how they compare in size and color. (Well, kind of. Most of these animals were stuffed in the 1890s, so they have a similar gray-brown color no matter what they started out like.)

But it was interesting. Gillian said one of her Irish friends could not get the concept of a turkey clear. From the photos, she thought it was very much like a peacock, with the same giant fanned tail. Finally, she went to the Dead Zoo to see the case in which the turkey and peacock were displayed next to each other. The difference was obvious.

So the lesson? Beware of form over function. Dioramas are pretty, but they convey different information than do "catalog" displays. We need them both. I'm sure it is the same in much of life.

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