The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: museum (Page 1 of 5)

Endling, a new word for new times

I have published an article “Endling, the power of the last in an extinction-prone world” in the journal Environmental Philosophy. In the article I put together the history of a word (and the history of the idea) to represent the last individual of a species.

This word, endling, has an exciting 20-year history. It began with a proposal in a short letter to the journal Nature in 1996 to coin a word to represent the last in a line. It was then picked up by the curators of the planned National Museum of Australia (NMA) that opened its doors in 2001 as part of a memorial to extinction, with a special focus on the thylacine. This sparked the word onto its journey into popular culture as well as popular science.

The Endling display at the National Museum of Australia. Photo by D. Jørgensen, 2016.

Importantly in this history, I show much museums and their presentations of ideas matter. I had the good fortune to visit NMA in 2016 (thanks to Professor Libby Robin for arranging my trip and interview with the former curator!). The Endling cabinet or monument was striking with its aluminum shine and central position in the exhibit. Its no wonder that the first people to pick up on endling as a concept had visited the exhibit. The history of endling proves that museum designers and curators have the power to make a difference in how people think and express those thoughts.

Through my historical narrative of this word, I argue that endling could play a key role in remembering species that have become extinct and encouraging action to avoid extinction in the future:

The concept of endling, with its ability to bridge the gap between species extinction as an abstraction and the death of an animal as a concrete event, offers a new way of thinking about extinction. It can make the narrative personal while retaining the universality of extinction—when this individual is gone, the whole species is no more.

This was a very different piece for me to research and write. I interviewed a symphonic composer and a artistic director and choreographer about their uses of endling. I read modern science fiction stories, which are often born digital, that frame the last of a species as an endling. I looked at the visual arts that used the term. And I even got to do research into the different genres of metal music (and played one song over and over again to try to make out the lyrics with its raspy metal voice — to no avail). It was an adventure to follow a word as it popped up here and there in, what at first, were unexpected places. And yet all of it made sense in light of the power of the word as a response to the sixth mass extinction event which we are living through. With new times, we need new words.

I hope you’ll enjoying reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Read my unformatted version of the text or go to the journal’s official version.

Anthropocene Animals

There has been a wide acceptance among scholars that we are living in a new age. This has been labeled to encapsulate the human (anthropos) nature of the age as the Anthropocene (although other names such as Capitalocene have been proposed as well). While originally proposed as a geologic era with special relevance for the geologic and atmospheric sciences, it has been picked up throughout the natural and human sciences, including history, as a way of talking about a human-dominated planet.

When I was asked to give a public lecture in conjunction with a new art exhibit “Perpetual Uncertainty: Contemporary Art in the Nuclear Anthropocene” at the contemporary art museum Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden, I wanted to think about the exhibit’s use the Anthropocene in the context of the non-human animal inhabitants of the planet. I decided to title my talk “Anthropocene Animals: how humans are changing the planet and its inhabitants.”

The opening of the exhibit in October 2016 could not really have been better timed. The International Commission on Stratigraphy had established a Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ to make a recommendation about possible geologic markers to delineate the Anthropocene from the Holocene, which started about 11,500 years ago. In August 2016, the Working Group recommended that the Anthropocene be started in about 1950 to align with radioactive fallout from nuclear materials. The decision was that we are living in the Nuclear Anthropocene.

With this in mind, I opened my talk with the animals of Chernobyl and Fukushima, then laid the groundwork of the Anthropocene as a time period, then turned to some of the ways we humans have been modifying animals in the longue durée. I organised the talk into three areas that match with things I’ve been researching over the past few years: domestication, distribution, and deextinction. Throughout the talk, I connected my ideas to the art works on display (which you can see even if you can’t come to Umeå in the Nuclear Culture Source Book that serves as exhibit catalog and additional resource).

At the end of the talk, I showed a clip from the final scene of Them!, the science fiction thriller movie from 1954. In the film, early atomic tests in New Mexico had caused ants to mutate into giant monsters. As the last of the ants is being killed, one of the onlookers wonders, “if these monsters are a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” The scientist protagonist answers:

When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

That is the perpetual uncertainty that the name of the exhibit implies. And it is the uncertainty we will continue to face about the effect of humans on the non-human animal inhabitants of the planet. We are all Anthropocene animals.

Watch my talk here.

Belonging to country

What does it mean to belong? When something belongs to someone, it means that person has ownership or title to it. When something belongs to a place, it means that it is accepted there, often making its home there. But I’ve come to think belonging is much more than that after two weeks down under.

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From tiger to devil

The island of Tasmania, Australia, was the final home of the large carnivorous marsupial thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger because of its stripes. The last known thylacine died in September 1936 in a private zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. Because I’ve been interested in extinction and extinction stories, I visited Hobart earlier this week to see the home of the thylacine.

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Dead as a dodo

In all likelihood you’ve heard the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’. The phrase probably has Victorian origins and built upon the existing older saying ‘dead as a doornail’ according to an article by Turvey and Cheke in Historical Biology. The earliest record of the phrase listed now in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1904 and the phrase grew in popularity beginning in the 1940s, if you believe the Google n-gram chart.

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Explorers and muskoxen

I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York yesterday. They have an excellent series of dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, which were originally opened in 1943 and elegantly restored in 2011-12.

The muskox exhibit at American Museum of Natural History. Photo by D Jørgensen, Nov 2015.

The muskoxen on display at American Museum of Natural History. Photo by D Jørgensen, Nov 2015.

One of the dioramas features muskoxen from Ellesmere Island, the third largest island in Canada. The pair were killed by Robert Peary’s Arctic expedition in 1898. This was the first of Robert Perry’s series of expeditions attempting to reach the North Pole (1898-1902, 1905-6, 1908-9) — he claimed to have finally gotten there on the last of those expeditions.

The diorama is framed in terms of Arctic exploration. The sign places the scene at ‘The Bellows’, a Canadian high Arctic valley on Ellesmere Island named by a British expedition team in 1875. The name was chosen because of the valley’s ‘unrelenting winds’. Within this context of exploration, the muskox is claimed to have been critical to the survival of early Arctic explorers like Peary:

Although sometimes musky in taste, musk-ox meat was vital to the survival of many Arctic explorers. Fresh meat supplies some vitamin C, necessary to ward off scurvy. During the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, fresh game was often scarce–and so scurvy debilitated half the crew.

This is true enough, but what the sign doesn’t tell you is that muskoxen like these were much more important as food for dogs than people.

'Royal banquet of my dogs'. Robert Peary, Northward over the 'Great Ice', vol. 1 (1898), p341

‘Royal banquet of my dogs’. Robert Peary, Northward over the ‘Great Ice’, vol. 1 (1898), p341

Peary was one of the great dog sledders. His book Northward over the ‘Great Ice’ about his earlier expeditions in Greenland, 1886 and 1891-96, contains detailed descriptions of muskoxen hunts. Although the men consumed some of the muskox meat, it was primarily for the dogs, which he called his “faithful shadows”. Peter Lent (Muskoxen and their Hunters) estimated that Peary’s 1898-1900 expedition on Ellesmere took at least 180 muskoxen. Considering that a dog sled team needs something around 9-10kg of meat a day, most of the muskox meat was consumed by the dogs. Hunts for muskoxen were thus as motivated by the needs of the dogs as they were the needs of the humans:

With the utmost eagerness we scanned every new prospect for the coveted animals; for we knew that musk-oxen meant fresh meat for ourselves, and an abundant supply of food for our dogs. (332-33)

While hunting animals in order to provide human food might be more palatable than realising that hundreds of muskoxen became dog food, the sign at AMNH misses an important aspect of the story: the muskoxen of Ellesmere, Arctic explorers like Peary, and the sled dogs which powered the exploration were tied up into one history. The multispecies entanglements of the Arctic explorations should not be forgotten.

The tale of two castors

When two things get the same name, it is easy to get them confused. This has happened with two medicines with similar names that have cropped up in my research: castoreum and castor oil.

The display of medicine derived from beaver at Elvarheim museum, Norway. It should be showing castoreum but instead displays castor oil. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The display of medicine derived from beaver at Elvarheim museum, Norway. It should be showing castoreum but instead displays castor oil. Photo by D Jørgensen.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Elvarheim museum in Åmli, Norway, recently opened a new beaver exhibit. I was quite impressed with the set-up. I did, however, notice an error in the display case of beaver products. The case included a beaver felt hat and the beaver gall liquor I’ve tried, both of which are made from beaver parts. It also had a shelf of medicine that was supposed to be from beaver, but the bottles on display were castor oil.

Castor oil is not made from beavers. Instead it is the oil extracted from seeds of the plant Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean, east Africa, and India, but cultivation has spread globally. Castor oil was a common 19th century and early 20th century household remedy. The seeds contain a toxin in the shell (called ricin) which is extremely toxic, but the pressed oil is not toxic.

A sick child in bed has his castor oil medicine poured for him. France. Photomechanical print after J. Geoffroy, 1894. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A sick child in bed has his castor oil poured for him. Photomechanical print after J. Geoffroy, 1894.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

That doesn’t mean it tastes good. You’ve probably heard nightmarish stories about children being forced to take castor oil for any number of ailments. You can certainly see the look of trepidation on the young boy’s face in a photo from France in 1894 on the right.

Wood's castor oil. From collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, Artifact 1977.12.20.

Woods’ castor oil. From collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, Artifact 1977.12.20.

Companies selling castor oil tried to market their oil as palatable for all. The Woods company, for example, labelled its castor oil as ‘sweet’ — it had been ‘sweetened and flavored as to disguise the taste’. The company claimed, ‘Children like it’.

In the later 1900s, companies started packaging castor oil in capsules to avoid the taste problem all together. But as the bottles on display in Åmli show, liquid is still a common form.

Needless to say, castor oil is not the same thing as castoreum.

Jars in the Riga Pharmacy Museum. Photo from D Jørgensen.

Castoreum is the secretion of the castor sac of the beaver. Beavers of both sexes have two sacs near the base of the tail. The secretion is used for marking territory. To make castoreum as a medicine, the sacs are removed, dried, and ground up. Most often the castoreum was administered in small doses as a tincture prepared with alcohol. Almost every historical apothecary collection from the 1700s to mid-1900s has a jar for castoreum. Most often these would have had castoreum from North American beavers since the beavers in Europe were extremely rare. The source of the beaver is apparent on the jar labels in several examples in the Riga Pharmacy Museum which say ‘Castor. Canadens.’

Castor sacs on display at the Elvarheim museum, Åmli. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Castor sacs on display at the Elvarheim museum, Åmli. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The Elvarheim museum has a very good example of the beaver’s castor sacs on hand in the exhibit. The sacs had previously been kept out, but they exuded such a strong smell that the museum staff decided to encase them. A small hole has been made in the case and a stick sitting in the hole touches the sac. The stick is then removed so the visitor can smell it. The castoreum scent is overwhelming and brought back memories of my earlier castoreum consumption encounter.

I encouraged the museum staff to replace the castor oil jars with old apothecary jars of castoreum in the display. Of course the castor sacs are also a wonderful supplement to the medicinal section.

The moral of the story is that the same name does not equal the same source. Castor oil and castoreum may sound similar but they are not related at all.

A historian walks through the beaver’s homeland

In historical work, we are called on to imagine ourselves in another time and another place. We try to see the world as the people (or animals) in our stories would have seen it. That’s not always an easy task. But because I was lucky enough to spend the last two days in southern Norway in the homeland of the Scandinavian beaver, it’s now a little easier for me as I write the beaver reintroduction story.

Næs Ironworks. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Yesterday I walked around the property at Næs Ironworks, which is now a museum featuring the double blast furnace, water-powered hammering shop, and templates for cast iron stoves. It was a lovely clear day for a stroll with my guide Gunnar Molden. Gunnar told me all about the Aall family who became the mill’s proprietors after Jacob Aall purchased it in 1799. Jacob was supposed to become a priest, but opted instead to travel around Europe to learn the iron working trade. When his father (who had been the one pushing him into church service) died, Jacob decided to purchase this iron mill in the Norwegian countryside. Jacob would go on to become well-known for his involvement in Norwegian independence from Denmark in 1814.

View of the pond on the Næs property. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Unlike most mill owners who continued to live in the big cities, Jacob and his wife Lovisa moved to a stately home on the Næs property. Lovisa worked to create a gentile estate, including making a romantic park in the English garden style with an artificial pond and gazebo. The pond was on some line between wild and tame, natural and artificial. Walking through the grounds let get a sense of what it would have been like to have this as my backyard, which is what it would have been for Nicolai, the oldest son of Jacob and Lovisa.

The setting matters because Nicolai Aall would go on to become the owner of the ironworks in 1844, and some time after that, he banned all hunting of beavers on Næs property. At this point, I have not found a concrete reason why he did it, but several things about his background give us hints. Growing up on this property would have certainly encouraged him to appreciate nature. Although he formally studied mineralogy at the university, he developed a passion for zoology. He collected zoological books and amassed an impressive collection of insects and birds, as well as mammals. He was also an avid hunter and employed a taxidermist on his staff. So at some point he decided that beavers were getting too rare as hunted prey and they needed protection. It is said that this protection is the only thing that kept the beaver in Norway from going extinct like the beaver in Sweden.

Along Telemarksvegen. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Along Telemarksvegen. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Today as I drove from Arendal on the coast up into the mountains to visit the Elvarheim museum in Åmli, I understood why beaver would have survived in Åmli long enough to be protected by Nicolai Aall. With mixed deciduous-coniferous forest rising up on the hills, there were small, still lakes around every bend — the perfect kind of lakes for beavers. I’m sure plenty of beavers now inhabit the waters I drove by, and I’m sure they did 100 years ago as well.

I met Tonje Ramse Trædal at the Elvarheim museum, which was founded from a hunter’s huge collection of taxidermy specimens and hunting/trapping gear. Just this June they opened a brand new beaver exhibit, which includes both fabulous displays about beaver ecosystems and some local information about the role of Åmli in populating the beavers of Europe. All of the beavers reintroduced to Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s came from this little town.

The view from P-M Jensen Tveit's farm toward Sigvald Salvesen's farm (in distance on left). The beaver pen likely stood just past the rocks in the foreground. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The view from P-M Jensen Tveit’s farm toward Sigvald Salvesen’s farm (in distance on left). The beaver pen likely stood just past the rocks in the foreground. Photo by D Jørgensen.

More specifically they went through the hands of Peder Martinius Jensen Tveit, “Bever Jensen”. So it was a treat to take a car ride with Tonje to Tveit, a few kilometers up the hill from Åmli, to see the Jensen farm. What was fascinating was that Jensen’s property, called Austigard, is adjacent to a farm named Bakkane, which was owned by Sigvald Salvesen. Sigvald was the Jensen’s main competitor in the live beaver business and from the tone of some documents I saw today, there was no love lost between them. Looking out past Jensen’s property to Salvesen’s, which would be no more than a few minutes to walk, it made the language in the documents all the more real. I could ‘hear’ the men complaining about each other.

Historians often work behind a desk. It might be in an archive, a library, or an office. It might be looking at digital files, hand written letters, or artwork. But more often than not it is divorced from the place of the history. This trip reminded me that it’s both insightful and refreshing to get out in the fresh air and see where history took place.

Thylacine Day 2015

Yesterday was Thylacine Day, or more officially National Threatened Species Day, in Australia. In 1996, Australia established the day to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of the thylacine which was in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.

In many official statements about National Threatened Species Day, this zoo animal is called the “last Tasmanian tiger” (for example by Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage). The National Museum of Australia presents the thylacine as becoming extinct as a species on 7 September 1936 with death of the Beaumaris zoo specimen, which has become known as ‘Benjamin’ although there are many questions about where this name originated (see Paddle’s The Last Tasmanian Tiger for discussion of the controversy). When the Tangled Destinies exhibit, now known as the Old New Land exhibit, opened at the museum in 2001, Benjamin was described as the “endling“, the last of a species, in the exhibit text and pedagogical material accompanying it. Although there has been ongoing debate as to whether or not thylacines are really extinct (I talked about this in my Search for the Last paper along with the beaver in Sweden), Thyacine Day marks the end of the species.

As a day of commemoration, National Threatened Species Day is not a celebratory day but a day of mourning. It doesn’t mark the end of a war or celebrate labourers and military service or highlight national independence. Unlike Earth Day, which asks people to think broadly about the human relationship with out planet on the 22nd of April, Thylacine Day puts a specific environmental tragedy into focus and asks how we can avoid the same fate for other species.

In honor of Thylacine Day 2015, the 79th anniversary of the death of the thylacine in Hobart’s zoo, I thought I’d share with you some of the thylacines I’ve seen in museum exhibits. No matter how many I see, each new one strikes me with a tangible sadness. As they look out from their glass cases, they always seem to ask the same question: why?

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Extinction and a matter of time

The Muséum nationale d’Historie naturelle in Paris has a room dedicated to extinct and endangered animals. Entering the room has the feel of entering a chapel for a funeral. It is dimly lit from above with cases of animals scarcely visible. Each taxidermied animal (even insects and plants are on display) is presented in a case with a black background. The labels appear on the sides on the glass to minimise distraction. The visitor is drawn to each specimen as if you were approaching the casket at a funeral. You cannot but feel the weight of extinction in the room.

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Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

In this space, I was struck by the inclusion of a large clock. It was a clock constructed in 1785 at the request of Marie-Antoinette for her Petit Trianon palace to show “Versailles time”. Only 8 years later, the Queen would be executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. The clock was seized and donated to the Museum in 1794. The clock was installed long before this room had the theme of extinct and endangered animals, yet it was fitting to have it there. Time ran out for Marie-Antoinette — her life was intentionally ended and her line died out (only one of her children, Marie-Therese, survived to adulthood but had no children of her own). Time ran out for the extinct species in the cases. Only their preserved bodies remain to remind us of their former glory, just as the Palace of Versailles bears witness to Marie-Antoinette’s life.

There were however also endangered species in the cases, which could mean that they will survive. But the room does not give the viewer hope. It seems that for them too it is only a matter of time.

Coupled with the larger exhibit outside of this one on the relationship of humans and the non-human inhabitants of Earth (which includes sections on domestication, pollution, resource use, etc.), perhaps the museum can help visitors envision ways to avoid the virtual funerals of more species. The reintroduction projects which my research focuses on are one of those ways, at least if the species still exists somewhere to have a population to draw on for reintroduction. But in this room there is power in the presentation of extinct species. It is a dark and depressing experience of death.

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