While the extinction of the dodo and the end of dinosaurs are the first things many people think of when they hear 'extinction', we are, in all likelihood, right now living through the Earth's sixth great animal extinction period. Because we have become aware of the permanent loss of animals and plants, modern societies are starting to investigate how and why that has happened, and what we might do to stop or reverse these trends. Museums, especially but not exclusively natural history museums, are one of the places that have taken the lead in telling stories of extinction.
This project explores how extinction and near extinction are remembered through museum exhibitions. The project is built on two levels: historical studies and putting the research into practice.
First in the historical part, we are looking at how extinction stories have been told in the past in museums around the world. Field data collection has been completed. The PhD student on the project is focusing on how the extinction of species from islands worldwide are displayed. She has so far published two articles on her thesis - one on the display of the last Pinta Island tortoise and the other on Hawaiian robes made from the feathers of an extinct bird. The post-doctoral fellow on the project focused on the use of copies in displaying endangered species. She published one article on animal death masks and extinction/endangerment displays. The PI is writing a monograph on displaying extinct specimens, and has published three articles from the project. Team members have given oral presentations at numerous online events for both scholarly and public audiences.
Through this research the team has found that extinction histories are often under-communicated by museums who hold the physical remains of extinct and endangered species. Narratives rarely discuss the reasons for extinction or how the individual on display was acquired. However, when the specimen on display is the last known individual of a particular species or subspecies, the team found that the specimen takes on a special, even sacred, status to which extinction narratives can be attached. The team has identified some displays which carry a future-oriented message about extinction and its prevention to the visitors.
In the second part of the project, we have deployed the research from the first part to help build a modern major temporary exhibit on the history of the near extinction and then recovery of the Scandinavian beaver. The exhibition was developed in conjunction with Aust-Agder Museum and Archive. The exhibition included several components: (1) a physical exhibition called 'The Beaver's Journey', which was shown June-September 2021 at Elvarheim museum in Åmli and moved afterward to other venues, including the Forestry Museum, Setedal museum, and Jamtli museum in Sweden; (2) a digital exhibition on the Europeana platform in English to reach a broad international audience (https://www.europeana.eu/en/exhibitions/the-beavers-journey); and (3) a monograph in Norwegian on the beaver's history to accompany the exhibition (https://issuu.com/univers/docs/beverens_reise_reduced). 'The Beaver's Journey' takes up the extinction future orientation identified in the research portion. The exhibition presents a positive messaging about potential environmental change for its target groups, including children.
While the extinction of the dodo and the end of dinosaurs are the first things many people think of when they hear 'extinction', we are, in all likelihood, right now living through the Earth's sixth great faunal extinction event. All indications are that the current rapid loss of amphibians and large mammal species is an event of catastrophic proportions. Unlike in prior global extinction events, this time around the extinction is being recorded as entangled human history as it happens; it is being remembered in human narrative.
This history project will examine how the history of species extinction and species recovery has been remembered and displayed publicly in museums from the nineteenth century to today. As humans have become aware of the extinction or eminent end of non-human animal species over the last two hundred years, there have been active attempts to memorialize the loss. Each act of remembering extinction is an act that reanimates the lost species and re-enacts the actions that brought about its death. This project will explore the multifaceted narratives mobilized in the remembering of extinction and near extinction in museums. It will explore the multiple framings active simultaneously in museum displays, including loss, guilt, belonging, care, mourning, and celebration. Facing these extinctions through memory-making and storytelling are a part of what it means to be human. By focusing on museums and the narratives of extinction stories, the project will shed new light on the communication of cultural values of the environment and non-human species.