A Bat in a Jar – Wet Specimen and the History of the Curiosity Cabinet – By: Elke Weesjes

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Selection of ethically sourced specimen

Selection of ethically sourced specimen

Sue Jeiven teaching her wet specimen workshop

Sue Jeiven teaching her wet specimen workshop

My little bat

My little bat

Tableaux by Frederik Ruysch

Tableaux by Frederik Ruysch

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederick Ruysch, by:
Jan van Neck

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch, by:
Jan van Neck

As some of you may already know, at United Academics we are currently building an app for our Journal of Social Sciences. The theme of our first fully interactive Ipad issue is ‘Morbid Curiosity.’ The guest editor of this endlessly fascinating issue is the endlessly talented Joanna Ebenstein, founder of the Brooklyn Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum and co-founder of the art and event space Observatory. This issue includes an array of exciting articles discussing unique topics ranging from preserved tattooed skins and Bolivian skull worship to the history of mourning rituals and Mexican crime scene photographs. In addition, we are also publishing a biographical piece on taxidermy. In this article, author Shannon Daugherty discusses the history of the craft, with a particular focus on the work of Walter Potter, the famous 19th century taxidermist. But the person central to Daugherty’s article is her friend and colleague Sue Jeiven, who is a professional tattoo artist and an amateur taxidermist.

Jeiven teaches taxidermy classes at the Brooklyn Observatory. She followed in Walter Potter’s footsteps and specialized in anthropomorphic taxidermy. This means attributing human characteristics to taxidermied animals. Jeiven’s animals wear clothes, are usually posed in tableaux, and often represent a parable or a story. In last week’s workshop, Jeiven went outside of her comfort zone and taught a group of enthusiasts the arcane art of wet specimens. These stunning artifacts fill natural history, medical, and anatomy museums. They are deceptively simple to the eye, but in fact, demand special skills to do properly. And Jeiven’s students were lucky; these skills are generally taught only in professional apprenticeships rather than classes for the general public. I was fortunate to be among her students; this blog post describes my experience.

On that night, I went from an observing outsider who was invited to sit in on Jeiven’s class and take notes, to an active participant, massaging the dead animal of my choice – a tiny little bat – until his frozen and stiff limbs appeared somewhat more lifelike. Jeiven showed us how to mix the chemicals, what jars to use, how to place the specimen inside of the jar, and how to make labels with waterproof ink using the classic scientific system. After three hours we all left the class with our own finished piece, and the knowledge to source our own materials and create our own work in the future.

Frederik Ruysch – Science meets Art

The class started with an illustrated lecture showcasing the history of artful preparations. One of the people whose work was briefly discussed was Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). This Dutch anatomist and botanist was a pioneer in techniques of preserving organs and tissue. In addition to his scientific contributions, he made artistic arrangements of the materials. The late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, sums up Ruysch’s work as follows:

“Ruysch made about a dozen tableaux, constructed of human fetal skeletons with backgrounds of other body parts, on allegorical themes of death and the transiency of life… Ruysch built the ‘geological’ landscapes of these tableaux from gallstones and kidneystones, and ‘botanical’ backgrounds from injected and hardened major veins and arteries for “trees,” and more ramified tissue of lungs and smaller vessels for ‘bushes’ and ‘grass.’ The fetal skeletons, several per tableaux, were ornamented with symbols of death and short life – hands may hold mayflies (which live but a day in their adult state); skulls bemoan their fate by weeping into ‘handkerchiefs’ made of elegantly injected mesentery or brain meninges; ‘snakes’ and ‘worms,’ symbols of corruption made of intestine, wind around pelvis and rib cage. Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions. One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, ‘Why should I long for the things of this world?’ Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, ‘Ah fate, ah bitter fate.’”[1]

Besides these tableaux or installations, Ruysch was also known for creating natural history assemblages to decorate the tops of jars of preserved animal specimens. Unfortunately, none of these pieces are known to have survived, but some of the drawings show how artful and elegant his work was.

Intrigued by the life and contributions of my fellow country man and hungry for more information, I decided to do some more research into the subject of preservation. Where does the human fascination with death specimens come from? When did it start and how has this macabre interest developed over the years?

Curiosity Cabinets

Two books have been particularly helpful in answering my questions: Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums by Stephen T. Asma and Type Casting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality by Elisabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen. Both books discuss the all important emergence of curiosity cabinets or Wunderkammerm (encyclopedic collections of types of objects belonging to natural history, geology, archeology, and ethnography) in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Skeleton of Siamese Twin in the Kunstkamera

Skeleton of Siamese Twin in the Kunstkamera

Ewen and Ewen note that the practice of creating curiosity cabinets goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church assembled relics of saint’s artifacts associated with Jesus and the Madonna to provide believers with concrete evidence and firsthand access to stories from the Old and New Testament. Myriad religious souvenirs were brought back from the Holy Land as part of the crusades and people viewed them with a fervent sense of awe. “In sealed cases, some ornately crafted a panoply of sacred remnants could be found, including such items as a drop of the Virgin’s milk, a pot that figured at the miracle at Cana, a scrap of a martyr’s shroud, nails, or a fragment of wood from the true cross or the comb of Mary Magdalene.”[2] Human remains were also brought into Europe; for example, the arm of the apostle James and parts of the skeleton of John the Baptist. Interestingly, alongside these sacrosanct objects ‘legendary’ artifacts like griffin’s eggs, tortoise shells, and unicorn’s horns were also part of the same collection.

When touched, relics were supposed to have miraculous physical and spiritual healing powers. By the mid-14th century, pilgrimages to churches with important relics had become massively large events and consequently almost no one could touch or even see them, making the trip a waste of time for the many who sought out their healing powers. Strangely enough, it was science that provided a solution: “Metal badges, which had long been sold as mementos of pilgrimages now were stamped with convex mirrors at the center so that people could hold them high above their heads and absorb the magic from distant displays of holy objects [...] In a world where it was widely assumed that optical devices would capture and preserve the visible truths of the material world, a central technology of objective science was beginning to frame even the rituals of religious mysticism.”[3] It would not be long, now, until science would replace religion as the primary collector of ‘miraculous’ objects.

The Secularization of Wonder

From the mid-15th century onwards, under influence of the Renaissance, collections of ‘miraculous’ objects became primarily associated with scientific learning and were connected with the discovery (and colonization) of new lands and the expansion of global trade. Collecting bizarre human remains and animal and plant exotica became a prominent feature of aristocratic and upper-middle class life.

Most European countries, at the time of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th century), had established some laws to protect the medical study of human cadavers, although it was generally only legal to dissect executed murderers. Whereas the dissection of non-criminal Christian bodies was seen as a sacrilege, bones of non-Christian people outside of Europe were commonly displayed. For some people in the medical profession, like Ruysch who was a chief instructor of midwives and ‘legal doctor’ to the court, it was possible to legally obtain scores of human cadavers. Ruysch subsequently used fetal skeletons for his tableaux and preserved abortives in jars.

Ruysch created natural history assemblages to decorate the tops of jars of preserved animal specimens

Ruysch created natural history assemblages to decorate the tops of jars of preserved animal specimens


Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) was a great admirer of Ruysch and a fervent collector of oddities. In 1697, he visited Ruysch and viewed his large collection of specimens. On his second visit, in 1717, Peter bought Ruysch’s complete repository of curiosities – including about 2,000 unique specimens – for the sum of 30,000 guilders.

Peter then brought the collection to Russia where it became the central feature of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, also known as the Kunstkamera. Opening his cabinet to the Russian public, Peter wanted to introduce his people to the facts of modern European scientific knowledge. He strongly believed that the specimens would cure the Russian masses of superstitious beliefs concerning nature. He also, for instance, encouraged research of deformities in an attempt to debunk people’s fear of monsters.

Some say that Ruysch’s secret preserving technique was included in the price paid by Peter. Ruysch used an alcohol based mixture, but the exact ingredients were a ‘trade secret’.

It was Ruysch’s contemporary, natural philosopher, chemist and physicist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who had discovered that natural history specimens could be preserved in “spirit of wine” (ethyl alcohol). The cost of ethyl alcohol was high and people experimented with different mixtures.

Preserved Siamese Twin in the Kunstkamera

Preserved Siamese Twin in the Kunstkamera

Even though Boyle discovered the wet preservation technique, it wasn’t until the Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793) that the process was perfected to the level of art. Hunter realized that the preserving jars had to be sealed in a very rigorous fashion; they were first “sealed with a cap of pig’s bladder, then with a cap of tin and over that a seal of lead, and lastly another pig’s bladder stretched over the top. The nearly imperceptible support filaments that suspended the specimens were linen threads soaked in molten beeswax.”[4] Well into the 20th century the linen thread technique is the preferred method, although an alternative is found for the alcohol solution. The discovery of this alternative called formaldehyde, is a major turning point for collectors in most branches of the natural sciences. This organic compound was first made in 1859 by the Russian scientist, Alexander Mikhailovich Butlerov. The advantages of formaldehyde over alcohol is that less shrinkage and bleaching occur. Besides a change in preserving liquid the introductions of plastics in the mid-20th century also proved to be an advance; acrylic containers can easily be custom-built for each specimen, and they cut down on the visual distortions of round glass jars.[5]

Fascination with Morbidity

Workshop Sue Jeiven

Workshop with Sue Jeiven

Today, museums specialized in medical oddities and preserved specimen like the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg and the Hunterian Museum in London continue to attract visitors from all over the world. These collections are as educational and fascinating as they were 300 years ago. Maybe even more so, since the aspect of time should be taken into consideration. After all, it is even more intriguing to look at something so lifelike and real, while knowing it has been dead for centuries. When I was prepping my little bat – who by the way wasn’t killed for the purpose of the workshop – I thought about immortality and how preserving him really celebrates his life. When I am old and wrinkly, my bat will still look young and fresh, his body is frozen in time. Like many others, I too am fascinated by preserved specimen, especially the odd and deformed ones. Before being introduced to the craft itself, I visited many medical and natural museums in Europe and closely observed jarred fetuses and two headed pigs. I feel people’s attraction to these oddities is related to the peculiar mixed emotions they bring on and as such I couldn’t agree more with Asma who said that his excitement for this kind of material ‘swings like a pendulum between the gutter of morbid fascination and the ponderings of “pure” knowledge.’[6]


[1] Stephen Jay Gould (Editor) and Rosamond Wolff Purcell (Photographer), Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors (W. W. Norton & Company New York 1992).

[2] Ewen and Ewen, Type Casting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (Seven Stories Press New York 2006) 31.

[3] Ibid, p 33.

[4] Stephen Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (Oxford University Press 2001) p 75.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, Introduction p.XIV.

For more information about Sue Jeiven and other exciting workshops at Brooklyn Observatory: click here.

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