Marco Beretta:From Private to Public: Natural Collections and Museums,

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  • Marco Beretta: From Private to Public: Natural Collections and Museums,From Private to Public: Natural Collections and Museums by Marco BerettaReview by: rev. by Paul Lawrence FarberIsis, Vol. 98, No. 1 (March 2007), pp. 162-163Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 20/06/2014 17:50

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  • 162 BOOK REVIEWSISIS, 98 : 1 (2007)

    The Rev. Charles Spurgeon was caricatured in1861 when he lectured approvingly on DuChaillus gorillas (from Beretta, ed., From Privateto Public).

    ers misunderstood. This essentialist language isprobably inevitable in a work directed at a gen-eral audience. Barness study is evidence for thefact that before its biomedical other had takenform, Chinese medicine as an imagined sys-tem of medical practice simply did not exist.Thus the reader of this fascinating book may

    be left with a basic question about it. Are wesimply exploring a prelude marked as much byinattention and indifference as by an engagementwith alternative ways of understanding the bodyor healing it? Or do we have here a deep historythat resonates for the later, more intense, en-counters between biomedicine and its alterna-tives? Bits of both seem possible. Before the uni-versalism of experimental science came todominate discourse about the body, most of whattraveled from East to West was empirical frag-ments of healing techniques. In the history ofscience, before Orientalism what we have is adiscourse of curiosity and wonder. On the otherhand, the Enlightenment engagement with Chi-nese medical technologies does show the emer-gence of paradigms of materiality and sciencethat prefigure the more systematic claims madefor Western medicine later on. Acupuncture inparticular was picked up in the early nineteenthcentury and scientized as electro-punctureplaying a hidden role in the history of physio-logical galvanism. It also was the only healingpractice identified from the beginning asuniquely Chinese.


    Marco Beretta (Editor). From Private to Pub-lic: Natural Collections and Museums. (UppsalaStudies in History of Science, 32; EuropeanStudies in Science History and the Arts, 5.) ix 252 pp., figs., index. Sagamore Beach, Mass.:Science History Publications, 2005. $39.95(cloth).

    The history of natural history, like the subject itpurports to study, has been undergoing consid-erable expansion and redefinition in the last sev-eral years.From Private to Public, a collectionof eleven papers with an introductory essay anda concluding comment, resulted from a confer-ence sponsored by the European Science Foun-dation in 2004 and attempts to call attention tonew questions and avenues of research. In largepart, the volume focuses on the material sourcesof natural history, rather than the theoretical orphilosophical discussions that were based onthose collections. As such, it is part of an inter-esting and growing body of literature on the

    broader cultural context of natural history thatincludes serious examination of popular cultureas well as the study of material culture.From Private to Publicis a particularly inter-

    esting volume in that it bridges a number of dif-ferent approaches to the study of the history ofnatural history. Starting with an essay in whichGiovanni de Pasquale briefly recounts ourknowledge of the Museum of Alexandria, thevolume then presents three papers on the earlymodern period. Susana Gomez Lopez writes onthe Spanish Renaissance, when initially muse-ums reflected the status of their owners and ex-otics reflected the appropriation of nature in theNew World. Alessandro Tosi provides a usefulhistoriographic discussion of the broader Re-naissance tradition. EmmaSpary uses an obscurecollection of the seventeenth century to raise is-sues surrounding the definition of a collection.Pierre Pomet, a grocer/druggist who publishedHistoire generale des Drogues(first ed., 1694),had a sizable drugs cabinet. He did not attemptany classification of drugs, however; nor do hiswritings contain any higher studythat is, hedid not partake in gentlemanly culture. Likemany other early collections, his cabinet ulti-

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  • BOOK REVIEWSISIS, 98 : 1 (2007) 163

    mately disappeared, so it did not form the nu-cleus of some later, more significant, institu-tions holdings. But should his collectioncontinue to be overlooked by historians? Mightits study provide an interesting source of his-torical information? And, if so, how are we toproceed in studying a vanished collection?Anna Maerker provides the first of seven pa-

    pers on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.She traces the fate of two collections of anatom-ical models. One, the popular La Specola in Flor-ence, reflects something of the transformationcollections were undergoing in the move fromthe private to the public sphere. The other col-lection, held in Vienna (actually a set of modelssent there from Florence), demonstrates the dan-gers of being too popularit lost its scientificreputation with the physicians and surgeons ofthe city when it was perceived as being toomuchassociated with middle-class entertainment.Jonathan Simon tackles the place of taste inprivate mineral collections in Paris during theeighteenth century. Although naturalists ridi-culed the attention given to aesthetics, Simondemonstrates the serious side of such concerns.Marco Beretta traces the use of mineral collec-tions for uses beyond the traditional ones of clas-sification or aesthetic display. Lavoisier col-lected specimens, performed experiments onthem, and synthesized the resulting data into amap that interpreted and integrated the infor-mation. Samuel Alberti complicates the public/private dichotomy by pointing out the wide spec-trum of ownership that existed between thesetwo poles. He elaborates on his point by dis-cussing how private collections were often ac-quired by (or became the foundations of) learnedinstitutions and noting that these did not alwaysmake their holdings open to the public. Simi-larly, the move to municipal ownership also con-tinued privileged access.Jenny Beckmans contribution shows how

    complex and interesting the politics of museumcreation can be. She explores the attempt of theSwedish Museum of Natural History in Stock-holm to appropriate the Linnaean tradition(closely associated with Uppsala) and how na-tional pride played an important role in its found-ing. Janet Browne takes a quite different tack inher essay by asking the question of what a col-lection does for its owner. She provides threerevealing examples: Charles Darwin and hisBeaglespecimens; Richard Owen and Paul DuChaillus gorillas specimens; and, finally, the un-usual case of Julia Pastrana, a hairy woman whoexhibited herself as a biological curiosity. AnaCarneiros long essay on a nineteenth-century

    collection of ichnofossils and the controversysurrounding it raises interesting questions aboutthe importance of the status of the parties in-volved and the use of photography and experi-mental methods.From Private to Publicraises many important

    issues pertaining to ownership, the use of col-lections (beyond the purposes of classification orsocial standing), the definition of collection,and the private/public continuum of collections.This host of interesting issues should not be in-terpreted as an agenda seeking to replace othersorts of studies in the history of natural historyor as a move to privilege the study of popularover elite science and the material in collectionsover the philosophical implications of that ma-terial. Rather, the volume shows howmuchmorewe can expand our overall narratives and howrich the subject is. Clearly, there is a lot to bedone!


    Patrice Bourdelais. Epidemics Laid Low: AHistory of What Happened in Rich Countries.Translated byBart K. Holland. xiv 176 pp.,figs., app., bibl., index. Baltimore: Johns Hop-kins University Press, 2006. $19.95 (paper).

    In Epidemics Laid Low, intended for the generalreader, Patrice Bourdelais has taken on the Her-culean task of analyzing the historical factorsthat allowed the nations of Western Europe and,later, North America, the nations he labels richcountries, to control epidemics of infectiousdiseases. In so doing, he is also tracing the ascentof the West and the factors that have allowedlarge parts of the developing world to languishin the areas of public health and economic de-velopment.Bourdelais, head of the interdisciplinary pro-

    gram Medicine, Health, and Social Sciences atthe Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences So-ciales in Paris, begins with a brief outline of theearliest history of epidemic disease, focusing hisattention on the oft-told tale of the outbreaks ofbubonic plague that periodically ravaged Euro-pean populations from the fourteenth through theseventeenth centuries. Bourdelaiss analysisadds nothing new and is, in fact, rather elemen-tary. For example, he writes, With the large-scale dislocation and disruption of families, in-dividualism increased (p. 24). Having offeredthis observation, however, he fails to provide anyevidence that this was, in fact, the case.Chapters 2 and 3 examine the relationship be-

    tween the formation of strong political states and

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