Posts Tagged With: art

Obscuring the heath hen: memory and the nature of memorials

This past summer, artist Todd McGrain placed a sculpture on Martha’s Vineyard in memory of the extinct heath hen. His statue stands along a bike path in the former reserve meant to save the dwindling species, now known as Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. McGrain’s installment looks smooth and graceful as it shines darkly against the muted colors of the New England forest. Its beak is opened slightly, as if crying out for its lost companions.

McGrain's memorial to the extinct heath hen, part of his Lost Birds project.

Heath hen once occupied barrens from New Hampshire to Virginia and some believe it was heath hen—not turkey—that Pilgrims consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner, as they were a cheap and easy food source. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, the hens became increasingly rare and, by 1870, were completely gone from the American mainland. Only on the Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard did the heath hen remain.

The population diminished quickly, however, from 300 to less than 100 individuals by the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did the island place a ban on hunting. In 1908, the same year Theodore Roosevelt announced American bison were nearing extinction, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard created the Heath Hen Reserve. Instead of hunting the bird, people now made pilgrimages simply to observe them.

Yet even as tourist attraction, the heath hen of Martha’s Vineyard could not hold on. They suffered from fire, weather, disease, predators, and inbreeding. Despite human intervention, there were a mere dozen birds in 1927; only two were female. The next year, the females were gone. By the end of that year, only one male remained. Booming Ben, as he was named, was the last of his kind. Birders flocked to see this lone male, hoping to catch a glimpse before he too disappeared. Sighting this creature who could not reproduce, had no companions, and whom one would likely never see again, must have been a sublime moment of wildlife observation. Booming Ben observers literally watched the original wildness of America pass before their eyes. Ben was last seen on March 11, 1932. In 1933, heath hen were officially declared extinct.

Though the people of Martha’s Vineyard were unable to save the heath hen, residents today continue to find a sense of identity in the bird. Rare as it was, the community once prided itself on its ability to retain a population, and the heath hen remains a part of their local identity—so much so, in fact, that they talk of reintroduction. Of course it is impossible to re-introduce the heath hen species itself, as it no longer exists. But some believe introducing a flock of greater prairie chicken is a near-enough match. Not quite a reintroduction, the plan is, rather, an ecological memorial.

Tim Simmons, from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program says the (re)introduction is not an attempt to get back to an original nature, but a way to “reintroduce processes.” The greater prairie chicken would be an umbrella species that would help restore the landscape to what it was in historical memory. The chicken is not a heath hen, but its ecological role is similar. Thus, what the (re)introduction would produce is an historic landscape; it is not restoring a species but reproducing a place considered part of the region’s natural heritage.

Historian Tom Dunlop suggests the (re)introduction would add another rare species to Martha’s Vineyard (which has several), creating a unique New England landscape for nature-seeking tourists. This perspective would seem to restore the island’s sense of itself as a draw for wildlife tourists, as it was over the heath hen’s declining years. Greater prairie chicken, themselves growing increasingly rare, would represent a pairing of natural and cultural heritage that has more to do with human uses of the landscape than the extinction of one species. The heath hen itself gets lost in the shuffle.

Since the original (re)introduction discussions began more than ten years ago, some ecologists admit the greater prairie chicken plan has problems. As it turns out, greater prairie chickens are not so closely related, genetically, to heath hen. Ecologists have grown increasingly skeptical of what one said would resemble a “museum exhibit of landscapes” more than a modern ecological restoration. Another was pushed to question: “What really is a heath hen?” Though he asked this from a biological standpoint, when turned onto culture, the question takes on a different significance. Is it a specific biological species? A generic chicken-like bird? Or a character in history?

Plaque commemorating the lost species at Correllus State Forest.

It is all these things. And in its memory, each brings the heath hen back to life. The question of what really is a heath hen underlines our memories of and memorials to the extinct species. Booming Ben is remembered on the bronze plaque installed in the state forest, but his body is not preserved (as is Martha‘s, the last of the passenger pigeons). Nor does he have a sculpture representing his individual identity: the hens depicted on the plaque are generic specimens.

Plans to memorialize heath hen with prairie chickens obscure the lost birds even further. While the plaque admits the birds are gone, describing in detail how they disappeared, (re)introduction seems an act of denial. Such plans care not for the fact of extinction. They are statements about place. Bringing in the threatened prairie chicken creates a blurred watercolor version of an historical landscape, defines Martha’s Vineyard as a sort of Noah’s Ark for endangered poultry, and installs a living landscape of loss.

Beyond the stark history of the plaque and the denial of (re)introduction stands McGrain’s statue, larger than life and silent, yet telling a more poignant story of loss. McGrain’s representation stands in place of the real thing not because it has to, but because the animal itself has become an abstraction.

As the case of the extinct heath hen reveals, we have no standard cultural response to losing the last of a species. McGrain’s statue is a beginning, a recognition, that humans mourn animals—and not just their pets—but an entire species.

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

Resources & References:

“An Extinct Bird has comeback hopes,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (May – June 1999).

Barrow, Mark. A Passion for Birds (Princeton University Press 2000) and Nature’s Ghosts (University of Chicago 2009).

Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Tarcher 2009).

Dunlop, Tom. “Birds of a Very Different Feather,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine  (September – October 2004).

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Art or nature?: considering the post-mortem poaching of rhinos

Dali faces his muse in this photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Museum.

The surrealist artist Salvador Dali believed the horn of the rhinoceros to be among the most perfectly constructed objects in nature for its logarithmic spiral that maintains the same curve as it grows. Upon being given one as a gift, he exclaimed, “This horn will save my life!” Dali strived to mimic its pattern in painting, trying to lift the delicate horn from the lumbering form of the whole rhinoceros.

A string of post-mortem poaching is now forcing us to consider whether rhinoceros and their horns are art or nature. Since May of this year, rhino horns and heads have been stolen from museum exhibits in England, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and France. Another was taken from an auction house in Essex. While at first the idea of thieves making off with monstrous rhinoceros heads may conjure comical images, these unexpected robberies are well-organized and increasingly successful.

In the Belgium town of Liege, a man pulled a rhino horn off a specimen in the zoological museum, tear-gassed the guards, and took off towards the Netherlands in a car waiting outside. When the car was apprehended at the border, the two thieves told investigators they were supposed to leave the horn at a statue in Helmond, for an anonymous buyer paying them $4275 for the heist. At the Natural History Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, three men smashed through a window with their stolen rhinoceros head and successfully fled the scene. In the most recent robbery, in Blois, France, thieves dragged a two hundred and twenty pound rhinoceros head along the natural history museum’s floor and escaped successfully with the trophy.

The string of robberies has caused concern in the museum community. The Natural Science Collections Association has recommended museums remove rhino horns from public display, and even suggest hiding information about rhinos and rhino horns in their collections from public view on websites and collection databases.

Valued for traditional Chinese medical treatments and Middle Eastern dagger handles, rhino horn has been known to sell at a higher price than gold. But rhinos all over the world are endangered. Along with these museum robberies, poaching in Africa has also been more frequent this year than in recent memory. Some scientists and conservationists have even begun to label rhino poaching a drug war. But why has it spread to European museums?

Two years ago, the European Commission ruled that rhinoceros trophies, including the horn, could be legally sold and traded. Their intent was not to encourage the trade in rhino horn for medicine, but to create a free market for rhinos as art and artifact. Previous to this ruling, all rhinos—living and dead—were protected by endangered species laws. Stuffed and mounted rhinos shared the same protection as their living descendants. Recently, the Commission updated its regulations, working with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to institute a ban on the trade of all rhino horn. Only horn that has been carved (thus making it more art than nature) before 1947 (more artifact than commercial commodity) is excluded.

The Heads and Horns collection of the Bronx Zoo, now dismantled, is at once art, artifact, and nature. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The taxidermied rhinoceros heads stolen are at once art, artifact, and natural specimen. Displayed in the halls of museums, they represent the nineteenth-century era of trophy hunting. They are visual symbols of African colonization. And they are associated, sometimes, with famous figures of exploration or royalty. Even if the horn has not been carved, taxidermy itself is an art form. Thus, when a rhinoceros head is stolen, it robs us of an object of historical and artistic worth.

The problem of post-mortem poaching is a problem for those regulating trade in art and in animals. It calls attention to the perceived value of animals outside of their natural habitats. If a rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, should we not invest in rhino futures? Or, will we simply lock all specimens away and forget the living animals associated with such priceless objects?

References:

Rylan Miller appears to have coined the useful term “post-portem poaching” in his article on the subject, “Thieves Just Stole ANOTHER rhinoceros head from a European museum,” Business Insider.

Andy Bloxham, “Police investigating international smuggling ring after theft of rhino head,” The Telegraph.

“Rhino head stolen from Brussels museum,” Saving Rhinos.

Categories: Animals, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Museums and curiosity: why I love dusty old exhibits

Museums these days can be anything. Their exhibits flash and blink with new technologies. Visitors interact, push buttons, listen to audio tours, and even perform experiments. But the museum experiences I love are quieter enterprises.

Butterflies inspire curiosity at the May Natural History Museum of the Tropics. (Photo by Author)

When I step off Manhattan’s honking streets and into the American Museum of Natural History, I avoid the bright new dinosaur halls and head straight to the darkness of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. I’ve lingered on the benches here watching school tours walk swiftly through, on to the next, brighter, more exciting venture, and felt alone in my appreciation for the hall’s simplicity.

To preserve the paint on the wooden objects, the lights in the Northwest Coast hall are always dim, creating a nostalgic but reverent atmosphere. Towering totem poles line the center hallway while small alcoves lined with glass cases provide intimate spaces for observation. The smell of cedar surrounds you as you gaze into the vacant eyes of carved masks depicting animal and human spirits. Though the masks were used in dances, they have come to rest here, to be appreciated as things themselves. Without an accompanying video, we must use our imaginations to bring the costumed dancers to life.

While technology does not prohibit imagination, its use in museums seems to distract from museum objects—and from slow observation. Multilayered labels and computer accompaniments give away too many answers. Visitors are left with no time to wonder.

As a kid, I remember sitting for hours in front of a single dinosaur skeleton, sketching and making up stories about it in my notebook. The old exhibits provide space for imagination and creativity. In larger institutions like AMNH families and schools largely ignore these quiet exhibit halls. Only quirky museum-historian types like myself stay long enough to enjoy their aura.

Peale, "The Artist in His Museum" (1822).(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

At a small, old museum in a campground outside Colorado Springs, however, I found such minimally labeled exhibits are not as outdated as some may think. Behind a blue velvet curtain (ala Charles Willson Peale), a true cabinet of curiosity lies waiting to inspire wonder.

The May Natural History Museum of the Tropics remains much as it was arranged in the 1930s by a father-son team of collectors, James and John May. The single-room exhibit is lined with beautiful wood-framed cases containing some 8,000 insects pinned to ivory velvet backings. No modern interpretation is provided. Instead, you are left to gaze in wonderment at the hundreds of multicolored butterfly species that seem as vibrant and crisp as they must be in the wild.

A display-case lined aisles of the May Museum. (Photo by Author)

Here, I observed families walk the aisles with the children as intrigued by the collection as any I have seen in a more technologically-oriented exhibit. They looked at the wings and the colors with more care than I would have expected. And, they asked questions. Why is this butterfly blue and that one orange? Parents answered as best they could. While their answers may not have provided the most scientific of explanations, the museum was providing “interaction.” This was hands-on learning between parents and children. And it struck me that what we often loose in high-tech, hands-on exhibits is a sense of communal and shared learning—and a tradition (at least in my family) of education as bonding.

The Hall of Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and the May Natural History Museum encourage curiosity. That they don’t give away all the answers earns them criticism for being outdated. But, to inspire is sometimes better than to educate. If these exhibits spark inspiration for the pursuit of more knowledge, they have done their job well.

Categories: Museums, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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