Posts Tagged With: taxidermy

Memorializing extinction: monuments to the passenger pigeon

“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”  – Aldo Leopold

Martha on display in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.

Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.

Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.

A statue likeness of Martha outside her pagoda at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of Roadside America.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.

At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.

A plaque honoring the pigeon and proclaiming the avarice of man in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. Courtesy Wisconsin State Parks.

But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

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

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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