• museum

    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. In this space, I was struck by the inclusion of…

  • birds,  museum

    A bird in hand or two in the bush

    At the Horniman Museum near London, a case with two birds stands near a staircase in the back on the natural history exhibit. Unlike most of the other displays that show visitors either related species (like a display of apes) or convergent evolution (like things with wing-like structures), this one puts the history of the species at fore. This relatively new display tells an extinction and reintroduction story: The great bustard (Otis tarda) once lived in Salisbury Plain and in the breck district of East Anglia, but became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1832, mainly due to habitat fragmentation. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the species…

  • museum

    Belonging and breed, horse and home

    At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Breeds Barn hosts horse shows in which different breeds are paraded out and presented for the visitors. I had a chance to see one such presentation when I visited Lexington for the Agricultural History Society 2015 meeting. I was struck by how the breeds are presented as belonging to specific countries based on the breed’s history and origin. The horses are each presented with a rider clothed to accentuate the horse’s homeland. Some of these were quite exaggerated with the English shire presented as a medieval knight’s war horse and the arabian in fancy embroidered silk. The horse park has, of course, not invented…

  • field visits,  museum

    Commemorating war and our losses

    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…

  • museum

    Meeting Martha

    I met Martha. Martha the last passenger pigeon. She sat on a branch with her body facing away from me, her head turning in my direction. I stared at her as she seemingly stared back with a glassy red eye. In a way she looked too life-like to sympathise with, to wonder what she had thought about as she spent her last fews years without her mate George. Now she was placed near a potential mate. A male bird, one Martha never knew, reached out with a seed in beak, possibly as an offering to Martha’s passing. But he too seemed too real, too alive. The bird laying down did not. In front…

  • literature,  museum

    Burning badger babies

    On a Sunday afternoon, 18 May 2008, a rope factory in the urban center of Oslo caught fire. Over a hundred people living in the area were evacuated because of the smoke. During work to suppress the blaze in a garage building, fireman Odd Arne Lande noticed a badger kit, which he grabbed before running out of oxygen. After the flames in the main area had come under control, Lande and fellow fireman Espen Solli reentered the building, which was still smoldering on the roof, and broke through the floorboards to expose the a den where more kits were huddling. The two rescued the youngsters, who according to Lande showed…

  • beaver,  field visits,  museum,  muskox

    2014 in review

    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…

  • museum,  news

    Welcome to the Anthropocene

    On Wednesday, I had a tour of the new exhibit Willkommen im Anthropozän (Welcome to the Anthropocene) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. While the validity of the Anthropocene as a geologic time frame has been been debated, few would debate that human impact on the planet is wide and deep. Humans, unlike most other animal species, have the ability to radically transform the environment through technological artefacts (a subject which you can read more about in my recent article “Not by human hands”). Acknowledging the role of technology in the reshaping of Earth, it was fitting that the first large Anthropocene exhibit be hosted in a museum of science and…

  • museum

    Animal histories at Chicago’s Field Museum

    I had the pleasure yesterday of visiting the Field Museum in Chicago, USA. The museum, founded in 1893 as an outgrowth of the World’s Columbian Exhibition hosted in Chicago that year, is home to one of the world’s premiere natural history collections. As someone interested in museum storytelling about animals, I was looking forward to seeing how the Field Museum approached history in their displays. I was impressed that animal histories with conservation messages pervaded many of the exhibits. Take the case of this gray wolf (Canis lupis):   The display not only puts the gray wolf’s decline into cultural context–“Our fears led to the wolf’s decline”–but it also tells the story…

  • beaver,  museum

    The fauna of post-glacial Sweden

    The Lund University Historical Museum has recently opened a new exhibit ‘Sven Nilsson and Skånes post-glacial fauna’. The natural history exhibit displays a mix of taxidermy and skeletal specimens of the animals which moved into southern Sweden when the glaciers retreated after the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. It is based on the work of Sven Nilsson (1787-1883), a leading Swedish zoologist who published an impressive multi-volume on Scandinavian fauna (first volume in 1820), headed the Natural History Museum in 1828-1832, and then became a professor of zoology at Lund University. Nilsson looked for both past and present evidence of animal colonisation, arguing that some animals, including bears, beavers, wild…