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Extinction: Not the End of the World? at the Natural History Museum, a Review

By Jack Ashby, on 14 February 2013

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Last week Curator Mark and I went to check out the new Extinction exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which tackles the often tackled but rarely dealt with topic of extinction.

Extinction, as a subject, is a tricky one. Firstly, natural history museums are full of it. We love it. 99% of species that have ever lived are extinct. [non-avian] Dinosaurs are extinct. Mammoths are extinct. Dodos are extinct. It’s bread and butter stuff. So much so that if we try and focus on it too much, it could be hard to make it special. Secondly, whatever museums/conservation organisations/David Attenborough say about modern extinctions, nothing ever changes.

So hats off to the NHM for putting it front and centre. As you might expect the exhibition largely follows the story of extinction chronologically while keeping the context of it being ever-present ever-present. It goes like this:

1)     It starts with prehistoric extinctions (dinosaurs) and the five mass extinctions which wiped out more than 50% of global diversity…

2)     then we see the first (my words) man-made extinctions at the end of the last cold period (giant deer)…

3)     before making the real focus on modern extinctions, and the concept of the sixth mass extinction being man-made.

All of that is happily predictable; it’s the most sensible way of tackling the topic and will meet visitors’ expectations. People will come to this wanting to see the textbook extinct species – dodos, auks, dinos, passenger pigeons, and hopefully they wont be disappointed as these stories are told (no thylacines though). But alongside these there is a healthy dose of the unknown, particularly for currently threatened species – fewer will have heard of slender billed curlews, Paedocypris (the world’s smallest fish) or the giant Fijian long-horned beetle.

In parts the exhibition is let down by being obviously built to travel to other museums – opportunities are avoided to include truly inspiring real specimens which are understandably too valuable to loan, but I don’t really buy that when this leg of the exhibition’s journey is inside the NHM. As well as that, it’s often unclear whether the specimen you are looking at is real or a model. Our findings from the QRator project suggest visitors think that is is a big no-no.

What really makes the exhibition is the inclusion of genuinely arresting quotes from scientists throughout the past few hundred years about extinction, like the one at the top, and this one:

“We are the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy” Wallace Stegner 1909-1993

Even the really old quotes read as if they might have been written today, which only made me think how poorly we’ve reacted to the problems we are inflicting on biodiversity.

Jack: I like it – there are specimens, some of them are real, and the use of images is very clever. Did you see the nineteenth century photo of the mountain of bison skulls ready for grinding into fertiliser? I think I cried a little.

Mark: Aside from the very well researched quotes and striking images, there’s not much new for the expert visitor. Having said that, and I’ll get accused of being a humanist again, there’s still something deeply moving about seeing specimens of recently extinct species. The exhibition is a walk-through textbook about extinction which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I did see species I didn’t know well and a handful of recent examples punctuate the exhibition. Was it hard hitting enough for the average visitor though?

Jack: Tricky. I don’t think it was preachy. Is that a good thing? I think there could have been more of a call to arms. There was a whole thing about tuna populations crashing, but they didn’t actually say “stop eating tuna”.

Mark: It’s tough, how many times have people been told that tuna is pretty much the perfect example of a species unsuited for mass consumption? But hardly anyone is changing their behaviour. Maybe the NHM thought there was no point. Aren’t we inundated enough with doom and gloom numbers and predictions that just wash over us? Should a national museum being telling people what to do?

Jack: They raised some interesting questions, particularly about the uncertainty among conservationists about to how to respond to problems, and that choices are made about what deserves saving. It didn’t occur to me when I was in there, but maybe the tide is turning in natural history museums to take more chances to use their collections to raise questions about wider topics, rather than just labelling them with straight biological facts.

Mark: On that point though I wanted to see hundreds of specimens of extinct animals to show, rather than tell, the scale of extinctions past and present, caused by humans and ‘not’, but I appreciate that this exhibition was built with sustainability and re-usability in mind and that putting out a load of specimens of extinct animals becomes a security risk. Final thoughts from me are go and see it and I’d be curious to know what you took away from it. Also, visit the shop and buy the excellent exhibition guide.

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