Rosamond Wolff Purcell & Stephen Jay Gould – Illuminations: A Bestiary
Length: 120 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Art, Science
Started / Finished: 22 January 2011
Where did it come from? Christmas present from my parents.
Why do I have it? It went on my wishlist roughly a million years ago when I was trying to round out my Stephen Jay Gould bibliography; I honestly didn’t really know what it was about until I had a copy in my hands.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2010.
What museum staff
and time have stripped away, these
photos put right back.
Summary: Illuminations is an art book arranged as a bestiary. It’s got photographs taken by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, of all sorts of things that she found in the storerooms and collections of several natural history museums. Most images come with commentary by Stephen Jay Gould on the biology and evolution of the organisms in question, the process of preservation that they’ve undergone, and what we can tell about humanity by looking at the preserved remains of other species.
Review: I love natural history museums. The one time I’ve visited Paris, my absolute favorite part of all of the sightseeing we did was the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy at the National Museum of Natural History. What I loved most about it was not all of the stuff they had on display – although that was undoubtedly cool too – but the human touches, the marks of the collectors and scientists and museum staff that by comparison seem to be sanitized out of most American museums. I mean, they had collection labels that were hand-written by Lamarck! (Hey, I’m a biologist; this stuff’s cool to me. Don’t judge.)
I initially wanted a copy of Illuminations for the science aspect of it – because Stephen Jay Gould was an author. I had no idea before I started it that I would get not only the science, but also the museum aspect to add to my fascination, nor that Purcell’s stated point was to choose images that spoke to the intersection of human biases and the natural world. Jackpot! How many more of my interests (biology, museums, comparative zoology, and photography) can you cram into one book?
Gould’s prose is as wonderful as it is in his full-length essays, expanding upon the relevant biological details where necessary but also making the leaps to connect the biology to seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge and culture. The similarities between a preservation process that highlights an organism’s vascular system by stripping away outer layers of tissue, and Michelangelo’s conviction that he was merely revealing the figures that already lay inside his blocks of marble. The fact that the stone used for all the best lithographic plates comes from the same quarry as the only seven examples of the fossil Archaeopteryx, and that the same geologic processes are the cause of both. Gould’s writing is not particularly easy – he assumes a basic conversance with science, history, and art that not everyone may have ready-to-hand – but it’s also not heavy, as he skips from topic to topic with ease, and apparent joy.
But even if this book were prose-free, it would still be fascinating. Purcell’s pictures are the main focus here, as well they should be. While there are several images that are simply gorgeous on aesthetic merit, all of the images have something very clear to say. This book is a little bit grim to be a proper coffee-table book – many of the images have something to say about death, dissection, and decay that doesn’t make for particularly appetizing fare – but the very fact that we find an alizarin-stained monkey to be so disturbing is interesting in and of itself. Purcell and Gould set out to make a book that would make people think about death, and Life, and the process of preservation, and what that says about humans, and how we see our place in the world… and if my reaction is any judge, they succeeded admirably. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: This would probably be best either for people who like art books with a sense of the macabre, or biology geeks who love natural history museums. (Or folks like me, who are both.)
Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.
First Line: Death strips information from an organism, layer by layer.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 9: “Dry bones form our standard metaphor for the end of this process, though it goes futher to triturated dust.” – to reduce to fine particles or powder by rubbing, grinding, bruising, or the like; pulverize.
- p. 10: “It comments upon life from a perspective that could not be more different from the traditional photographic essay in natural history, though it confutes or contradicts nothing about the ordinary mode.” – to prove to be false, invalid, or defective; disprove.
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