Portraits of Extinction: Encountering Extinction Narratives in Natural History Museums

In Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History, ed. Jennifer Bonnelland Sean Kheraj, 371-387 (University of Calgary Press, 2022)

In this chapter I will examine three portraits of the bluebuck, one created by the MNHN in Paris, one by the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet (NRM) in Stockholm, and one by Naturalis in Leiden to see how animals displayed in the archive of the natural history museum can narrate extinction. The fourth extant taxidermied bluebuck (and the only female specimen) is owned by the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, but it is not on display, so it has not been included. I am not writing an object biography of these specimens—although that could be done by examining how they were collected, treated, mounted, and displayed over time—but rather examining how they are shown to the visitor, frozen at one moment in time as a portrait of extinction. In order to unpack the representational practices, meaning making, and media messiness of the exhibition of animal bodies, I adopt a critically situated, place-based, lived-experience method. The encounter with the animal traces in the museum is a process—it unfolds through interaction and emotion. In this chapter I take the reader with me through this process of seeing bluebuck portraits.

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