Three Carolina parakeet skins from the Museum of Zoology

Natural History, Extinction, and Storytelling at the Museum of Zoology

In this blog for Lost Species Day 2020, Geography PhD student Anna Guasco explores the question of: How do we tell stories and remember histories about natural history, extinction, and species endangerment in museums – and why does this matter?

Dod skeleton on display in the Museum of Zoology
Dodo skeleton on display in the Museum of Zoology

Today is Remembrance Day for Lost Species, or ‘Lost Species Day’. This label memorialises dodos, thylacines, passenger pigeons, and other icons of extinction – as well as those species less known or less ‘charismatic’. This mournful provocation – to remember those species who have been ‘lost’, particularly in anthropogenically-driven extinctions – raises as many questions as it answers. Why remember lost species? What are different ways to remember lost species? And why does it matter how we remember lost species?

As a PhD student studying historical and contemporary human-animal encounters, these questions fascinate me. I’m interested in questions of justice, memory, and the intersections of cultural and natural histories. In a recent, open-access article, I looked at museum storytelling about extinction, arguing that museums can explore complex and challenging topics about justice in a time of extinction. I’m particularly concerned with how storytelling about extinction often portrays a homogenous, vilified humanity, without much thought to the different ways in which ‘we’ have experienced both the causes and effects of contemporary mass extinctions.

This is just one example of the way in which narrating extinction is complicated and challenging – extinction is not nearly as straightforward as one might think. There are difficult scientific questions about extinction – when did a species go extinct? Which was the last individual of a species? How do we identify what’s driving extinction? Is a particular extinction part of natural balances, or is it part of the trend of a rising imbalance of extinctions? But what makes extinction a challenging concept isn’t just the scientific questions it entails. Extinction is also a cultural, social, political, and economic issue.

Skeleton of a thylacine
Skeleton of a Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, an extinct carnivorous marsupial from Tasmania. Image (c) University of Cambridge + Julieta Sarmiento Photography

In honour of Lost Species, and to continue thinking about how museums remember zoological histories and narrate extinction, I talked with the Museum of Zoology Assistant Director, Jack Ashby. One of the first things Ashby mentioned was that extinction, as well as every other topic in the Museum of Zoology, doesn’t actually fit neatly into the categories of ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’ (even though the traditional museum approach is to separate these topics into separate institutions). As Ashby points out, “A scientific collection is always a cultural collection”.

In addition to acknowledging the cultural shaping of display specimens, museums can explore their own cultural and social histories. This is particularly important in the context of extinction because the rise in anthropogenically-driven species loss cannot be separated from other global and local human histories: histories of colonization, imperialism, enslavement, and more. These events in human history are intertwined with ecological histories.

One way that the Museum is working on understanding and acknowledging these entwined social and ecological histories is through the new Legacies of Empire and Enslavement Project, run by the University of Cambridge Museums to align with the Inquiry into the Legacies of Enslavement at Cambridge, launched in early 2019. The Museum of Zoology, instead of solely using their collections for scientific research, is examining the social histories of its collections. This, according to Ashby, is challenging, in part because “those stories aren’t very readily accessible because the human story of the specimens is often not very well-documented”. It’s “a lot harder because no one’s ever really looked for them in this museum before…”.

Three lesser bird of paradise skins
Lesser bird of paradise skins in the Museum of Zoology. Image (c) University of Cambridge + Chris Green

Ashby recounted one example: the Museum has a large collection that was, officially, collected by Lord Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. But what Ashby and other researchers have been finding is that much of the collection was actually collected by a local Sarawak teenager named Ali, along with another teenager, Baderoon from Celebes. Working on the stories inspired Ashby’s recent blog on telling the truth about who collected so-called ‘hero collections’. This type of intervention is one of the main ways that Ashby sees natural history museums participating in calls for social justice and decolonization of museums: much of this more historical work “is aiming to say ‘museums, natural history museums, have traditionally celebrated dead white men, but actually the history of our collections is the consequence of the contributions of a huge diversity of people’”. Revealing these histories changes the messages museums impart, allowing “anyone [to] come to the museum and say, ‘someone like me played a part in our history’”. Another way that the Museum is thinking through decolonization, Ashby tells me, is through developing long-term, mutually-beneficial partnerships in places that research is taking place, and avoiding ‘parachute science’ practices.

These brief examples illustrate how the Museum is a productive space for working through difficult questions about interwoven cultural and natural histories. Extinction is a particularly thorny topic. It is a difficult and emotionally-wrought subject to deal with. It also involves different people in different ways – some people may economically depend on endangered species, or have particular histories with those species, whilst others might have different relationships or feel that extinction is a far-away, abstract issue. Learning to grapple with these histories, and to recognize their complexity, is essential to how museums (and other institutions) might rethink the stories told about extinction.

How we remember, anticipate, and tell stories about extinction matters – not only for those nonhuman species that have gone extinct or may go extinct, but also for people. It seems appropriate, on Lost Species Day, to consider what stories we tell about extinct and endangered species, and how we tell these stories. Who is imagined as a hero in these stories? Who is vilified? What stories are missing or silenced? Who is the ‘we’ or ‘our’ in these stories?

In a time when we hear many troubling stories about universalized human responsibility for ecological destruction – for example, the problematic narrative of ‘we are the virus’ that emerged out of the rather mistaken notion that nature was ‘healing’ in ‘our’ absence – it is important to be careful, critical, and thoughtful about the ecological stories we tell.

Photograph of four skins of the extinct Carolina Parakeet from the Museum of Zoology
Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis. The last captive parakeet died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. Image (c) University of Cambridge + Chris Green

Further Reading/Exploration

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