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.
Category: field visits (Page 1 of 2)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday evening I went on my second beaver safari. This time I was near home–only 36 km away in Vännäs on the Vindel river. We had great luck and saw several beavers right away.
Beaver were first brought back to the county of Västerbotten very early in the reintroduction process. In 1924, the second beaver reintroduction in Sweden took place in Västerbotten on the Tärnaån further inland. But no more reintroductions happened in the area until after World War II. In the 1950s and 60s beavers were set out intentionally and more animals migrated in from the neighbouring Jämtland reintroductions.
According to an article from 1984 in the journal Från hav till fjäll, an inventory in 1961-62 counted 39 animals in Västerbotten county. By 1969, the number had grown in 63, and by 1976 it had jumped to an estimated 500. By 1983, the estimate was 5600 to 7000 animals and it’s gone up significantly since then. The beavers have been beavering away in Västerbotten.
Like my previous research object safari experiences, this was also a sensory tour. We started out around a fire to have a cup of newly open-fire cooked coffee while sitting on wooden benches draped with beaver skins. The skins were soft and warm. And our guide, Stefan Lindgren of By the River, explained that it is the soft underfur which has thousands of follicles per square cm that keeps the beavers fur waterproof (and soft). Stefan said that he had acquired them from a retired beaver trapper, who had originally kept them in order to make a beaver coat for his wife, but she refused to have it! So he bought the skins and now uses them on tours to allow the guests to get closer to beavers.
It was also a physical tour — we were in a rubber boat and each guest had to do some paddling along the ride. Luckily the wind was blowing upstream, so we had it pretty easy with the wind’s help. There was a stillness out on the Vindel river. You have to be quiet to not scare off the beavers, so it was just the sound of the paddles, the wind in the trees, a fish splash here and there, and the slap of a beaver tail when one dove out of sight.
We got to see the entrance to the beaver’s den with branches piled up as protection and the beaver trails from the water into the woodlands. At one point, we saw a beaver dragging some freshly cut willow branches through the water. Unfortunately, when the animal saw us, he/she dropped the newly acquired prize and swam away. Stefan then guided the boat over to the branches and picked them up for us to see the beaver’s handiwork. We each got a piece of beaver gnawed branch to take home.
Although beavers make significant changes to their landscape, they are in many ways invisible. Few people have ever seen a beaver, even if they live in an area well-inhabited by the critters. Like most wildlife, they do a good job of hiding themselves. This of course makes wildlife tourism like beaver safaris challenging. In this case, there are typically one or two beaver families in this particular area which is a protected little island near one side of the river downstream from a rapids. It is perfect beaver spot, so Stefan knows that most of the time, beavers will be there, but nothing is guaranteed. So I feel privileged to have been able to see beavers at work in Västerbotten.
Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, which remembers the end of World War II in Europe with the surrender of the Nazi forces to the Allies. Of course in addition to celebrating the final success, festivities focus on honouring all those died in the conflict. There are memorial stones and graves to generals, battalions, unknown soldiers, and civilians. Animals who served in war are likewise honoured in permanent form at the Animals in War Memorial in London, the Australian Animals in War Memorial, and the US National War Dog Cemetery on Guam. Modern society has a penchant for commemorating its war dead.
When I visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC in April, I realised that extinct animals are no exception to this impetus to commemorate the lost. The artist Todd McGrain has created a series of sculptures as part of The Lost Bird Project. The bronze sculptures, which have been on display at the Smithsonian, depict five extinct North American bird species as mode of exposing “the tragedy of modern extinction”, according to the website.
The passenger pigeon sculpture stood in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where the Once There Were Billions exhibit inside featured stories and taxidermied specimens of the passenger pigeon, great auk, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen. I reflected previously about my experience of meeting Martha, the last passenger pigeon. The statue likewise had a pensive feel, in dark bronze, looking up into a sky which will never again be darkened by invading pigeon flocks.
The Smithsonian Castle garden featured a quartet of birds: the Carolina parakeet, great auk, heath hen, and labrador duck (a species not featured in the museum exhibit). They are lovely representations with smooth flowing contours that move the statues beyond natural history into modern abstraction.
As I looked upon these statues on a sunny spring morning, I could hear the birds singing in the trees. It seemed an appropriate juxtaposition: hearing song and seeing silence.
The text on a garden sign proclaims the artist’s message: “These sculptures compel us to recognize the finality of our loss. They ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.” Commemoration events around the beginning or end of armed conflicts ask us to not forget and to strive to avoid repeating the past losses — these statues ask us to do the same with humanity’s war on nature.
My previous post marked the 150th post of this blog and the year is coming to a close, so I thought it would be a great time to review what I wrote about in 2014. Although this blog is based on my research about beaver and muskox reintroduction in Norway and Sweden, I range far and wide in applying my research insights.
Ongoing news about the beavers in the British Isles was worth comment several times, including coverage of the beavers discovered in Devon and their potential cull because of fears of disease. For some, the beavers are a lost species who is wanted back in Britain. For others, including the media, it’s been unclear whether the beaver has native or non-native status, but that hasn’t stopped proposals for more beaver reintroductions like in Wales. As noted in an exhibit in the Grant Museum, the question still remains whether or not money would be better spent on conserving animals already present in Britain rather than bringing in extinct ones.
Of course, I didn’t restrict my discussions to British beavers. My travels during the year brought me in contact with the histories of beavers in other places, including Latvia, Berlin, and my nearby zoo in Lycksele. I also commented on the Canadian beavers which had been brought to Finland. And I can’t forget to mention the flying beavers reintroduced via parachute in the US.
My favourite beaver post of the year had to be about eating beaver for Lent. It’s a great example of how medieval history and modern history can intersect. Of course, being trained first in history as a medievalist, I like to bring older history into the blog, which I did with posts on otters appearing on Olaus Magnus’s 16th century map of the North and the animals in the early medieval Life of St. Cuthbert.
My most read post on this blog is about beavers too, but it’s actually from 2013. “On the time I drank castoreum” ended up being linked to by an NPR article in March 2014 on castoreum flavouring and the result was a huge spike in readership. That post has nearly 1200 views! I had a follow-up this year on castoreum as a driver for beaver hunting rather than just fur, but it’s popularity is nothing like the drinking post.
Muskox, the other main subject of this blog, has to be the worst named animal on the planet since it is neither an ox nor produces musk. Its name is certainly not the only thing contentious about it. It can be an inconvenient animal, especially when it crosses lines over national boundaries (like a herd did in the 1970s) or into urban areas, resulting in sanctioned culls. Financial compensation is often required when muskoxen have caused damage within ‘allowed’ areas. Reintroduction efforts are anything but cheap – in the case of the muskoxen, there was significant fundraising (the beaver reintroduction had required fundraising too).
The original motivations to bring the muskoxen to Norway and Svalbard were complicated and political, although practical considerations like its potential use as a meat source as an acclimatised animal were also fundamental. Patriotism and nationalism are key elements in reintroduction because there is often a sense that the animal should belong within a particular nationstate where it is currently absent. There remains the question, though, as to whether previously extinct animals will be counted as ‘citizens’, which often depends in turn on how lines in time are drawn by scientists. An animal’s history and the way in which that animal is remembered in the communal memory can also affect its acceptance–this applies even to introduced species that can become so accepted that they are state symbols. All of these cultural issues factor into how ‘attractive’ a reintroduction is, even if people think they are being ‘scientific’ about their decisions.
One of the most interesting muskox stories this year was the pair of muskoxen traded to China in exchange for a pair of pandas in 1972. Milton and Milton did not fare well in the Chinese zoo and soon died. It was a sad story, although it didn’t get as much attention as the death of Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen zoo in February. That was likewise dwarfed by the media coverage of the 100th anniversary death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who was put on display at the Smithsonian. Of course, it’s not easy to know you’ve seen the last of a species, just as it is difficult to trace the beginning of an idea.
I included a fair share of other species on this blog in 2014 too, including the cultural history of vultures and cod, a suggestion to reintroduce wild reindeer as fodder for wolves, the relationship between American bison and Native American, and the amazing success of axolotls in captivity in spite of their near-extinction in the wild. Insects even made an appearance in posts about beaver beetle specimens and their missing data and parasite co-reintroduction. I was also interviewed for a feature article on responses to raccoon dogs entering Sweden that appeared in the magazine Filter in June.
I had noticed raccoon dogs in an exhibit case of ‘new species in Sweden’ at the Swedish Natural History Museum (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseum), which I think has missed out on telling possible species histories.The Natural History Museum in Brussels, however, was very good about giving animals personality and a voice, and the Field Museum in Chicago included some compelling animal histories. I always keep an eye out for reintroduced animals in exhibits, like the beavers at Oulu University’s exhibit on Finnish animals and in Lund University’s post-glacial fauna of Sweden exhibit. A visit to a parish school museum in Estonia even prompted me to write about beavers on school posters. A northern bald ibis, which is being reintroduced as a migratory bird between Germany and Italy, is being exhibited as part of the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit at the Deutches Museum in Munich.
The Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit highlighted for me the problem of attempts to de-humanise thoroughly human landscapes, especially when humans are treated as ‘unnatural’ in restoration and rewilding discourse. A similar thing happens with deextinction talk that seems to overlook the social and cultural barriers to actually reintroducing previously long-dead species. We have the power to envision wilder worlds, but only if we make humans visible in environmental issues as integrated parts of the Earth.
Over the course of 59 blog posts, that’s what I was thinking through in 2014. None were final thoughts–they are always works in progress. By writing them here I get to work thorough my ideas while sharing them out loud, if you will. I hope it has been as interesting to read (I had over 10,000 page views this year) as it has been to write. I’m looking forward to continuing my journey in 2015 as I explore what reintroduction has meant in the past and what it could mean in the future.
This week I stopped as a tourist at the Musée Mécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco after the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting. The museum is part historical collection, part working penny arcade (although most things cost a US quarter now). There are stereoscope viewers, fortunetellers, strength testers, ball games, and car games. A large number of them machines are moving dioramas including farms with moving animals, carnivals with working rides, the oil field with spinning derrick drills, and bizarre morbid animated execution scenes including hangings and a beheading via guillotine.
One of the automata diorama machines was called “The Inquest”, presumably dating from end of the 19th or beginning 20th century like much of the collection, but no date was on it. The scene was intriguing. Three American bison (commonly referred to as buffalos) stood around a Native American (at the time of production called an Indian) lying on the ground. The setting is early winter – the bison, Indian headdress, and ground are lightly dusted in white. The backdrop is painted with more bison and a rising mountain is capped with snow. The hairy inquisitors moved their heads either sideways or up and down, investigating the dead face-up Indian. That was it. That was the story a viewer got for a coin.
As the bison shook their heads pondering the plight of the man, I began to ponder what such a display meant.
One possible interpretation is a turning over of the hierarchy of hunt and hunter. Here the man, who had likely caused the death of so many bison, was dead before them. From the bisons’ perspective, was it a deserved death? Perhaps it was the same kind of view as the executions on other machines that always implied that justice was served through death. Of course, in reality it was not natives but invading white settlers and hunters that brought the bison to the brink of extinction. But I doubt that was considered at the time the machine was made or seen in an arcade. Such a message caught me off guard because it looks at the scene from the bison’s point of view. It is the bison who are the actors – they inquire, investigate, and move – rather than the human.
An alternate interpretation is that the scene represents the closing of the frontier, i.e. the Fredrick Jackson Turner thesis that I have no doubt came up in several papers at the ASEH conference I was attending. Was this a moving meditation on the end of the Western way of life? The bison seem genuinely distressed at the body. Perhaps we are supposed to read them as compatriots, components in a Western ecosystem which has been dismantled by outsiders. This too would be a surprising message in that it admits a place for both the animal and Indian at a time when neither seemed to have a place at all. We often fail to remember that the bison was nearly extinct by 1900. The herds had been systematically hunted for skins and as a way to force the indigenous people off the land, with thousands of carcasses left rotting in the sun. It was only the fortuitous action of a few that keep the animals alive on farms, animals which would eventually breed enough to be successfully reintroduced to the plains. According to Andrew Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison, part of the impetus for reintroducing the Plains giant was to reclaim the frontier wildness and preserve the cowboy (rather than Indian) whose way of life was passing away. Perhaps the death of both the Indian and the bison meant the death of the cowboy, an American icon. Did the creator want to invoke a sense of guilt for this destruction from the viewer?
This short inquest of “The Inquest” can’t provide answers, but it can prompt us to think about who is in the center of our environmental history stories: The curious bison? The dead Indian? The unseen cowboy? As a historian, I often stand over my long-dead subjects like the animated bison, cocking my head sideways wondering what it all means.
Libby Robin added this comment:
The Hunted turn on the Hunt – what a trope for the End of the Frontier era. It would be very interesting to find out how close this one was to 1893.
Another idea is that this is what Tom Griffiths calls ‘White Noise’ – pitting the man and beast against each other, when in fact their common enemy was European settlement, thereby silencing the guilt.
Tom’s idea is online http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/emuse/wik/griffiths2.html and further explicated in his book <<Hunters and Collectors>> (1996)
As always, readers are welcome to comment! Because WordPress broke the commenting feature on the latest database upgrade, send me a email if you’d like to do add something to the discussion.
The end of 2013 also marks the end of the first year of “The Return of Native Nordic Fauna” project. It’s been a year that has really gotten the project off to a running start. I’ve documented the course of the project on this blog since it’s beginning on January 1, but as some readers may not have been following along all that time, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the year.
During the year, I’ve skipped around Norway and Sweden working in archives, trying to decide what to copy and what to leave behind from the Skansen archives held by the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, the Jamtli archives in Östersund, the National Archives and National Library in Oslo, the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, and my home university library in Umeå. I’ve also spent countless hours finding digitized newspaper articles and journal articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s, a process which also illuminated gaps in the record. During those days leafing through dusty, often hard-to-read handwritten papers, I discovered that people tried to donate some odd animals to Skansen, that muskoxen disappeared during the German occupation of Norway and soldiers got the blame, and that Peder M. Jensen Tveit (aka the beaver whisperer) sold rare beaver beetles in addition to the beavers themselves.
Luckily this project has also permitted me to move beyond the historical archive into other sites. I’ve gotten to spend some days outside doing field work where I found out that beavers have been incorrectly identified as lizards on rock carvings, I observed a wild muskox herd through a steady rain in the Dovre mountains as well as captive muskoxen at the breeding center in Tännas, and photographed wild beavers swimming past my boat. The research year has been a barrage of real sensory experiences that has included eating muskox meat, drinking castoreum liquor, and feeling soft and warm muskox wool.
Some of my favourite research stops have been at museums and zoos, where I have examined the ways in which the stories of reintroduced beavers and muskoxen in museum settings are presented to the public. I’ve thought about how exhibits often erase individual animal’s stories to tell species ones, but there are certainly exceptions, like Bruno the Bear in Munich. I’ve visited zoos in Östersund and Lycksele, seen stuffed beavers in an Estonian forestry museum, and examined the contents of an apothecary shop from Robertfors that sold castoreum as medicine.
Although my research has focused on the reintroduction of beavers and muskoxen, I’ve also thought about other reintroductions such as the debate about wild boar in Britain, wisent in Germany, speeding up the spreading of cranes, and woodpecker releases. I’ve mused on fiction literature that deals with reintroduction, including Star Trek, H.G. Wells, and Dr. Seuss. I’ve even gotten to bring in my medieval history interests with posts on St. Francis and the wolf and Olaus Magnus’ map.
I’ve had the chance to share some of my early findings at conferences and workshops in 2013. In February, I talked about hunters as godfathers of beavers at a wildlife history workshop. In March, I argued that Skansen and its director Alarik Behm were an obligatory passage point in the beaver reintroduction at the Swedish History of Technology and Science Days. In August, I talked about the deployment of the muskox’s historical presence in Scandinavia as a reintroduction justification at the European Society for Environmental History biannual conference. In November, I presented the boxes that carry translocated animals as transformative at the workshop Animal Enclosures in Oslo and Northern Nations, Northern Natures in Stockholm. In December, I conceptualised muskoxen as migrants at the Rachel Carson Center lunchtime colloquium in Munich.
One of the most exciting things about this project has been the sidetracks — or should call them productive diversions? — that I’ve been led down. I discovered the word endling and its fascinating history, as well as entered the debate on de-extinction with an article in Bioscience linking de-extinction and reintroduction. I presented a history of the idea of rewilding at a workshop in Cambridge, was interviewed in a podcast as a follow-up, and am currently preparing a revised version of the manuscript for publication.
All the while, I’ve been thinking about how historians tell stories, how story-telling makes cultural memories, how artefacts like maps and stuffed animals might affect our perceptions of belonging, how definitions of nativeness matter, and why we need history-telling to help us remember and make better policies. I’ve also reflected on the challenges of interdisciplinarity and the truths of academic publishing. These broad reflections can have lasting affects on the way I write history and hopefully the way others write and read history in the future — my case studies of beavers and muskox are really the means to an end.
I’m looking forward to Year 2 as I continue to deepen and broaden my research. I hope you’ll take a moment to explore the Year 1 posts on this blog then follow along in 2014 as I share more discoveries.
On Wednesday, I visited the Natural History Museum in London while on vacation with my family.
I looked for the taxidermied beaver specimen that Sigvald Salvesen of Aamli, Norway, sent to the museum in 1925 (I have a copy of the letter correspondence about the transaction from the NHM archive). Unlike Jensen-Tveit who was also in Aamli, Salvesen took a more scientific approach to beavers: he published an article “The Beaver in Norway”in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1928, as well as an extensive handbook on raising pelt animals (Pelsdyrboken) and a scientific article on moose and red deer in Norway. In one of Salvesen’s letters to the NHM Keeper of Zoology Martin Hinton, he suggested that the specimen be stuffed standing upright eating on an aspen branch. I do not know if that was the configuration he finally used, but if so, the beaver on display is not from Salvesen. Hinton was actually not happy that Salvesen had stuffed the beaver at all–he had wanted it as a skin and skeleton for the museum’s scientific collection–so it’s possible that the museum already had a beaver on display before Salvesen sent his. So, alas, I found no direct connection to my beaver reintroduction story in the halls of NHM.
But I did make an observation about the way that stories around the mounted specimens are told. They all become stories about a species. The beaver I took a picture of is a stand in for all European beavers. It is labelled with the species name (Castor fiber) and range distribution. A longer text gives the feeding preferences and lodge construction techniques of beaver. The mammal specimens in the displays are Platonic forms: they are taken them out of time and space to capture the “essence” of the animal.
The particular beaver on display has no story. It is just one of the unnumbered masses of beavers that it represents. If this specimen does date from the 1920s or before, it was one of only about 1200 European beavers left. It was actually part of a dying race on its way to extinction. It was an important individual as far as the species was concerned, yet that story– whether the story of the individual beaver or of its species at the time of its collection–is invisible.
But I saw two places in NHM where the individual animal stories were paramount.
The first I encountered was in the restaurant area on the Ground floor. Chi-Chi the panda sits in a glassed enclosure eating bamboo, an appropriate choice considering its placement in the eating area. Chi-Chi had been a resident of the London Zoo from 1958 to her death in 1972, and was a favourite with visitors.
The exhibit is very different from the mammals hall. Rather than “Giant panda” being the label, it is “Chi-Chi” in very large print. While there is some general information about the species, including a range map, there are historical photos of Chi-Chi when she was alive and text about her individual history.
There is a similar exhibit on the second floor across from the door to the Treasures room. In this empty glass case, Guy the gorilla sits looking somewhat skeptically out on visitors. Guy was a resident of London Zoo from 1947 to 1978, so Chi-Chi’s life at the zoo was during Guy’s lifetime there as well.
Guy’s exhibit has a up-to-date electronic media display that allows the users to choose different pages, each with text and a historical photo about Guy. These boards allow Guy’s history to be told like flipping through a family photo album: a cute baby Guy, him as adult “Gentle Giant”, and his death by heart attack followed by taxidermied afterlife.
These two animals were stars. They were well-known and loved by the British public who visited the London zoo. Their individual lives had intersected with human lives before their death, so they had stories that NHM wanted to tell about them as individuals. All of the other mammals on display did not have that connection to people in London before they were killed, stuffed, mounted, and set in cases. While they certainly had individual life histories, they were not deemed worthy to tell, nor were they likely easy to recover. But I could not help but think that although their stories are lost in time, we mustn’t forget that they too were individuals.
I spent this morning in the Umeå University library basement looking through newspapers on microfilm. I was glad to see that the microfilm section had a new digital reader, which allowed for better zooming and image adjustment than the old machine, but I still could only print out the images rather than saving them as electronic files.
The reason I was there was to find out about the public reaction to the muskox which migrated over the Norwegian-Swedish border in 1971. While the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has a complete digital archive (a paid subscription is required to access it), there are few digitised newspapers for Sweden for the 20th century. The National Library of Sweden has digitised a good number of newspapers from the 19th century, but the available content after the turn of the century is woefully small. There is a service called Retriever that has some Swedish newspapers, but only from the 1980s onward. So that means that any newspaper coverage of the 1971 migration does not exist in digital form. Thus the trip to scroll through newspaper microfilms on a wild goose (or in this case, wild muskox) chase.
While historians have been looking through microfilms for years, the requirement to do so stresses how a big chunk of the 20th century is for the most part invisible on the internet. There was a very good article in the Atlantic in July 2013 about the disappearance of mid-20th century books. Because mid-20th century books are still in copyright but not available from presses, they don’t show up in Amazon or other booksellers. They are available only to people through physical copies in libraries that already have them.
Old documents that are out of copyright (generally before 1923) are regularly available. The book and journal contents of the Internet Archive never cease to amaze me! And old journals are often Open Access through services like JSTOR or the Biodiversity Heritage Library. On the other end of the timescale, new research is easy enough to get most of the time through my university library (although sometimes interlibrary loans are required). But the stuff in between 1923 and 1980 is often quite hard to locate.
This has consequences. As an article from 2007 on the challenges and effects of digitising our history in New York Times pointed out, digitisation makes certain sources visible, thus researchable and “important”, while other things are not. If I want to know the muskox story from 1971, I have no alternative — I must waste away hours watching the microfilm fly by while trying to catch a glimpse of “Myskox” in a headline. I did find three articles during my two and a half hours, so that’s something, but lacking digitisation, this part of the story will likely remain under-explored.