Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 14

  • Koko, the female gorilla who could use sign language, besides painting and loving kittens, died on June 19th. But Koko was not the first primate to communicate with humans; the fisrt, groundbreaking attempt to make a monkey “talk” was carried out in quite a catastrophic way, as I explained in this old post (Italian only – here’s the Wiki entry).
  • Do you need bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, centipedes, fireflies, bees or any other kind of insects for the movie you’re about to shoot? This gentleman creates realistic bug props, featured in the greatest Hollywood productions. (Thanks, Federico!)
  • If you think those enlarge-your-penis pumps you see in spam emails are a recently-invented contraption, here’s one from the 19th Century (taken from Albert Moll, Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften, 1921).

  • Ghanaian funerals became quite popular over the internet on the account of the colorful caskets in the shape of tools or barious objects (I talked about it in the second part of this article — Italian only), but there’s a problem: lately the rituals have become so complicated and obsessive that the bodies of the deceased end up buried months, or even several years, after death.
  • This tweet.
  • 1865: during the conquest of Matterhorn, a strange and upsetting apparition took place. In all probability it was an extremely rare atmospheric phenomenon, but put yourselves in the shoes of those mountain climbers who had just lost four members of the team while ascending to the peak, and suddenly saw an arc and two enormous crosses floating in the sky over the fog.
  • The strange beauty of time-worn daguerrotypes.

  • What’s so strange in these pictures of a man preparing some tacos for a nice dinner with his friends?
    Nothing, apart from the fact that the meat comes from his left foot, which got amputated after an accident.

Think about it: you lose a leg, you try to have it back after the operation, and you succeed. Before cremating it, why not taste a little slice of it? It is after all your leg, your foot, you won’t hurt anybody and you will satiate your curiosity. Ethical cannibalism.
This is what a young man decided to try, and he invited some “open-minded” friends to the exclusive tasting event. Then, two years later, he decided to report on Reddit how the evening went. The human-flesh tacos were apparently quite appreciated by the group, with the exception of one tablemate (who, in the protagonist’s words, “had to spit me on a napkin“).
The experiment, conducted without braking any law since in the US there is none to forbid cannibalism, did raise some visceral reactions, as you would expect; the now-famous self-cannibal was even interviewed on Vice. And he stated that this little folly helped him to overcome his psychological thrauma: “eating my foot was a funny and weird and interesting way to move forward“.

  • Since we’re talking disgust: a new research determined that things that gross us out are organized in six main categories. At the first place, it’s no surprise to find infected wounds and hygiene-related topics (bad smells, excrements, atc.), perhaps because they act as signals for potentially harmful situations in which our bodies run the risk of contracting a disease.
  • Did someone order prawns?
    In Qingdao, China, the equivalent of a seafood restaurant fell from the sky (some photos below). Still today, rains of animals remain quite puzzling.

EDIT: This photo is fake (not the others).

  • In Sweden there is a mysterious syndrom: it only affects Soviet refugee children who are waiting to know if their parents’ residency permit will be accepted.
    It’s called “resignation syndrome”. The ghost of forced repatriation, the stress of not knowing the language and the exhausting beaurocratic procedures push these kids first into apathy, then catatonia and eventually into a coma.  At first this epidemic was thought to be some kind of set-up or sham, but doctors soon understood this serious psychological alteration is all but fake: the children can lie in a coma even for two years, suffer from relapses, and the domino effect is such that from 2015 to 2016 a total of 169 episodes were recorded.
    Here’s an article on this dramatic condition. (Thanks, David!)

Anatomy of the corset.

  • Nuke simulator: choose where to drop the Big One, type and kilotons, if it will explode in the air or on the ground. Then watch in horror and find out the effects.
  • Mari Katayama is a Japanese artist. Since she was a child she started knitting peculiar objects, incorporating seashells and jewels in her creations. Suffering from ectrodactyly, she had both legs amputated when she was 9 years old. Today her body is the focus of her art projects, and her self-portraits, in my opinion, are a thing of extraordinary beauty. Here are some of ther works.
    (Official website, Instagram)

Way back when, medical students sure knew how to pull a good joke (from this wonderful book).

  • The big guy you can see on the left side in the picture below is the Irish Giant Charles Byrne (1761–1783), and his skeleton belongs to the Hunterian Museum in London. It is the most discussed specimen of the entire anatomical collection, and for good reason: when he was still alive, Byrne clearly stated that he wanted to be buried at sea, and categorically refused the idea of his bones being exhibited in a museum — a thought that horrified him.
    When Byrne died, his friends organized his funeral in the coastal city of Margate, not knowing that the casket was actually full of stones: anatomist William Hunter had bribed an undertaker to steal the Giant’s valuable body. Since then, the skeleton was exhibited in the museum and, even if it certainly contributed to the study of acromegalia and gigantism, it has always been a “thorny” specimen from an ethical perspective.
    So here’s the news: now that the Hunterian is closed for a 3-year-long renovation, the museum board seems to be evaluating the possibility of buring Byrne’s skeletal remains. If that was the case, it would be a game changer in the ethical exhibit of human remains in museums.

  • Just like a muder mystery: a secret diary written on the back of floorboards in a French Castle, and detailing crime stories and sordid village affairs. (Thanks, Lighthousely!)
  • The most enjoyable read as of late is kindly offered by the great Thomas Morris, who found a  delightful medical report from 1852. A gentleman, married with children but secretly devoted to onanism, first tries to insert a slice of a bull’s penis into his own penis, through the urethra. The piece of meat gets stuck, and he has to resort to a doctor to extract it. Not happy with this result, he  decides to pass a 28 cm. probe through the same opening, but thing slips from his fingers and disappears inside him. The story comes to no good for our hero; an inglorious end — or maybe proudly libertine, you decide.
    It made me think of an old saying: “never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing“.

That’s all for now folks!

My week of English wonders – II

(Continued from the previous post)

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.

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The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.

But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.

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When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind.
Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.

And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.

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I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.

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The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).

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If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.

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The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.

The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.

The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.

My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.

Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.

As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.

We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.

This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.

And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.

Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.

Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.

Il Gigante di Cardiff

In quel tempo c’erano sulla terra i giganti,
e ci furono anche di poi,
quando i figliuoli di Dio si accostarono
alle figliuole degli uomini,
e queste fecero loro de’ figliuoli.
(Genesi, 6:4)

Era il 1868. Il tabaccaio George Hull era ateo, e non sopportava quei cristiani fondamentalisti che prendevano la Bibbia alla lettera. Così, dopo un’ennesima discussione esasperante con un suo concittadino convinto che nelle Sacre Scritture non vi potesse essere alcuna metafora, Hull decise che si sarebbe preso gioco di tutti i creduloni, e forse ci avrebbe anche fatto qualche soldo. Si preparò quindi a mettere in piedi quella che sarebbe stata ricordata in seguito come la “più grande burla della storia americana”.

George Hull acquistò un terreno ricco di gesso nello Iowa, e fece estrarre un grosso blocco di pietra squadrata. Con enormi difficoltà, riuscì a far spostare l’ingombrante fardello fino alla ferrovia, dichiarando che serviva per un monumento commissionatogli a Washington. Ma il blocco di gesso venne invece spedito a Chicago, a casa di Edwin Burkhardt, uno scultore di lapidi e busti funerari. Hull l’aveva infatti convinto a lavorare in segreto, con la promessa di un lauto pagamento, alla scultura che aveva in mente. Lo stesso George Hull fece da modello per quella strana statua di quattro metri e mezzo, e quando l’opera fu completa i due passarono sul gesso acidi, mordenti e agenti macchianti per “invecchiare” la scultura. Riuscirono addirittura a ricreare quelli che avrebbero dovuto essere scambiati per i pori della pelle.

Hull tornò quindi con il suo “gigante” a New York, dove lo seppellì dietro il fienile del suo amico e complice William “Stub” Newell.  Lasciarono passare un anno e poi, con la scusa che serviva un nuovo pozzo, pagarono una ditta di scavi per cominciare i lavori. Gli operai, ovviamente ignari, scoprirono l’incredibile statua, e già il pomeriggio seguente Hull e Newell avevano eretto una tenda attorno alla “tomba del gigante pietrificato” e chiedevano ai visitatori 25 centesimi per poter ammirare quella meraviglia. Cominciò un immenso passaparola, e il prezzo di entrata raddoppiò in poco tempo a 50 centesimi – una cifra altissima per l’epoca.

Il gigante di Cardiff divenne l’argomento dell’anno: politici, accademici e religiosi ne discutevano con fervore, e le teorie più assurde vennero proposte per spiegare l’enigma. Secondo alcuni il gigante era un missionario gesuita del 1500, secondo altri un indiano irochese Onondaga, ma per la maggioranza, come aveva sperato Hull, il gigante era la dimostrazione inconfutabile che ciò che era scritto nella Bibbia non era soltanto una verità spirituale, ma anche storica. Nemmeno la lettera, proveniente da Chicago, di uno sconosciuto scultore tedesco che affermava di aver preso parte alla beffa, convinse nessuno: erano certamente i vaneggiamenti di un pazzo. Un geologo dichiarò: “il gigante ha il marchio del tempo stampato su ogni arto e fattezza, in un modo e con una precisione che nessun uomo può imitare”.

Il gigante di Cardiff, cominciato come un costoso ed elaborato scherzo, stava diventando un business enorme: venne spostato a Syracuse, dove il prezzo del biglietto salì fino a 1 dollaro – più o meno 60 euro di oggi.

E qui entra in scena il geniale P. T. Barnum. Come sempre, appena fiutava odore di affari, il più grande showman di tutta l’America non si faceva scrupoli. Barnum offrì a Hull 50.000$ per portare in tour il gigante per tre mesi, ma Hull rifiutò. Barnum però non era certo tipo da darsi per vinto: riuscì a corrompere una guardia, e di notte fece intrufolare nella tenda un suo artigiano, che eseguì un calco in cera del gigante. Tornato a New York, ricavò dal calco in cera una copia in gesso, del tutto identica alla statua di Hull, per esporla nel suo museo.

Adesso c’erano quindi in giro ben due giganti! Cominciò una battaglia tragicomica, senza esclusione di colpi. Barnum dichiarò che il suo gigante era l’originale, che aveva comprato da Hull, e che quello di Hull era un falso. Hull denunciò Barnum per diffamazione. In tribunale, Hull ammise che il gigante era una burla, e la corte decise che Barnum non poteva essere ritenuto colpevole di aver dichiarato che il gigante di Hull era un falso, dato che lo era. Durante la disputa, un collaboratore di Hull pronunciò la celebre frase There’s a sucker born every minute (“Ogni minuto nasce un nuovo babbeo”), che sarebbe poi stata erroneamente attribuita a Barnum, e che riassume perfettamente una certa filosofia dello show-business.

E infatti i “babbei” non si fecero attendere. Il processo, paradossalmente, riaccese la curiosità del pubblico per “la grande burla del gigante di Cardiff”, e la folla ricominciò a pagare per vedere non più uno, ma due giganti, che su strade separate continuarono la loro carriera per molti anni, fruttando una fortuna sia a Hull che a Barnum. Se vi interessa sono ancora visibili. L’originale è esposto al Farmer’s Museum a Cooperstown, New York, mentre è possibile ammirare la copia di Barnum al Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum di Detroit. Ed entrambi valgono il prezzo del biglietto… se siete dei babbei.