This week my husband is in London doing digital history networking. He had the opportunity to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London and sent me a fabulous picture of the Grant’s beaver specimen on display.
If you look past the fact that this is a surgically severed beaver head in fluid (how strange and fascinating is that?!), the Grant Museum has done something really interesting with the text of the display that I want to ponder over for a minute.
The label begins by telling the visitor what kind of animal this is: Beaver, which is then placed within the category “rodent” in the first sentence. I noted that even though this is a zoology museum, it doesn’t say what kind of beaver this is even though there are two distinct types of beaver–Castor fiber (European) and Castor canadensis (North American)–which cannot interbreed. The entry for this specimen in the Grant’s online catalog identifies it only as Castor sp., meaning that they are not sure what kind of beaver it is. The catalog lists a few pieces of both types of beaver, so it could be either. In the context of the text, however, this beaver is made to represent the European beaver (even if it is not).
The label’s statement is that a large sum of money (2 million pounds) was spent over 7 years to reintroduce the beaver to Britain. While not giving it a name, the reintroduction project referenced is the Scottish Beaver Trial, which gives the same figures on their website. It is interesting that the reintroduction is placed in “Britain”, making it directly relevant to a museum in London, whereas the Scottish Beaver Trial outreach material always refers to the effort as happening in “Scotland”, except in a few places where “UK” is mentioned. No other information is given to the visitor about the beaver’s past presence in Britain (or specifically Scotland), its current status in Europe, or any information about why anyone would want to bring the beaver back.
So after arming the visitor with the knowledge that the beaver is being brought back at a price tag of £2 million but without any additional context, the label asks the loaded question: “Would this money have been better spent protecting existing species?” Based on the information given, it might be hard to answer anything but “yes” since £2 million sounds like an awful lot of money. But, of course, the museum hasn’t presented the whole story–in fact, they’ve only presented the smallest sliver of it.
When thinking about this question in this specific museum context, we need to know that the Grant Museum has created an interactive visitor experience with a system called QRator. There are iPads spread throughout the museum for visitors to read and answer questions, either there in person or later online. You can read the series of questions that are currently asked as well as those that have been asked before. The beaver’s question has not been asked, but I’m guessing that the label sets up the question as a potential QRator item for the future.
Reading through the list of questions, it is obvious that the museum is trying to be provocative. Questions like “Should we only be conserving things that have a potential human benefit?”, “Is domestication ethical?”, and “Should British red squirrels be protected when they are common in Europe?” are all met to make the visitor think about ethical issues in conservation. One of the current questions is even on de-extinction (without calling it that): “Should we clone extinct animals?” There are some interesting answers to the question, particularly because you can see how pop culture (the movie Jurassic Park) figures into the comments even though it is impossible to bring back dinosaurs without recoverable DNA. The type of answers may reflect the paucity of context in which the question has been asked. The beaver question “Would this money have been better spent protecting existing species?” is being asked in this same vein.
So is it a good thing to pose a question in a museum, especially one that calls for an ethical decision, with such a minimum amount of context for the visitor to answer it? Is the end result heightened awareness of conservation issues or snap judgements? I’m not sure. But maybe in the end that’s because there is no clear answer to the question “Would this money have been better spent?”