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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