beaver,  museum,  muskox,  Svalbard

Misplaced muskox

Because the archive didn’t open until noon today, I stopped by the Frösö zoo, a local privately-owned zoo which opened in 1960. The zoo has a “Nature room”, which the owners label as the only biological museum in northern Sweden. So I wanted to pop in and see if they happened to have beavers or muskox in their display, since I knew that they did not have live specimens of either one in the zoo.

I had expected to see the beavers. They are a common component of museums in Sweden as far as I can tell. At Frösö, the group of beavers inhabiting the “Middle Northland” (basically meaning ‘local’) section of the packed-to-the-teeth diorama was pretty standard, happily chewing on wood. No surprises there. More interesting was the muskox, whose placement was much more surprising.

Muskox in the Frösö zoo's Biologiska Museum, Sweden. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen, 2013.
Muskox in the Frösö zoo’s Biologiska Museum, Sweden. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen, 2013.

The muskox stands in the last section of the exhibit in the area labelled as ‘Svalbard’. A sign upon entering said that the exhibit was set up as a journey from ‘Skåne to Svalbard’ — which is a nice alliteration but kind of silly since Skåne and Mid-Sweden are in, well, Sweden and Svalbard is not. In any case, that’s how they set up the exhibit and the muskox appears as one of the largest animals in Svalbard (there is also a polar bear which is standing so it looks exceptionally large).

What’s exceptional about this is that the exhibit was opened in 1986 … and the last known sighting of muskox on Svalbard was in 1985. The first reintroduction of muskox had taken place in 1929 with the release of 17 calves captured in Greenland. The herd appeared to thrive: according to reports in 1936, the herd had grown to 30, and by the mid-1960s, there were anywhere from 50 to 100. Suddenly the population declined in the 1970s and the whole group died out by 1985. At the same time, the breakaway herd of muskox from Norway had come over to Härjedalen (the adjacent county) in 1971 and stayed. So in 1985, there were actually muskox in the neighborhood, so to speak.

Thus when the exhibit opened, this muskox was placed in exactly the wrong place. Although muskox had been reintroduced to Svalbard, they were no longer there, so did the muskox belong there? At the same time, live muskox were currently inhabiting mid-Sweden, so did the muskox belong in that part of the exhibit instead?

The three beavers in the Frösö zoo's Biologiska museum. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen, 2013.
The three beavers in the Frösö zoo’s Biologiska museum, Sweden. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen, 2013.

Some reintroduced animals, like the beaver, have quickly been integrated into exhibits. I’ve seen them in lots of museums in Sweden. But clearly the muskox wasn’t seen as a Swedish animal by Rune Netterström who set up the exhibit. In the Biologiska Museet in Stockholm, muskox appear only as part of the ‘Greenland’ diorama rather than in the Swedish landscape because they were not in Sweden at the time the museum was designed. Nothing has been changed since that initial design even though the animal’s ranges have changed.

More broadly, this should make us think harder about how animal exhibits are put together. Where do we place animals whose geographies have changed, whether by our doing or theirs? If animals move to new places because of climate change (and let’s hope they do so that they don’t die out), will we be willing to relabel our exhibits? Because our named places (like Mellan Norrland) are associated with particular habitats, are we going to have to rethink which habitats and animals we show in the future? Are we willing to place ‘exotic’ species that are a common occurrence in the landscape in our dioramas so that we show what’s really out there?

The Frösö zoo muskox stands among Svalbard’s animal life as the last muskox, gazing toward the Mid-Sweden exhibit where muskox currently live. It is a misplaced specimen without a home.


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