Bristol Museum & Art Gallery houses one of the most popular natural history collections in the UK. Recently it became the latest institution to focus on the crisis in global biodiversity, in this case by using mourning veils to shroud its specimens of extinct or endangered species.
Through shrouding its animals, “Extinction voices” also highlights in a poignant way the importance of curating meaningful and relevant displays. Senior Curator Isla Gladstone intends the intervention to create “a space for conversation” that will help to raise awareness of the loss of species and habitat across the globe.
Tiger provokes response from primary school
Gladstone acknowledges that local school children provided some of the inspiration. After visiting the museum and viewing an exhibit of a Bengal tiger shot by George V in Nepal in 1911, the children did further research and wrote to say they wanted to know the true stories behind the acquisition of many of the animals in the collection.
Behind the dramatic tiger exhibit lay the deeper and more unsettling story of a royal hunt during which another 38 tigers and eighteen rhinos, as well as other animals, were killed. In the days of empire, it was not unusual for many of the animals to be donated to or acquired by museums. The impact of hunting and habitat loss in the hundred years since the hunt is clear: the current wild tiger population is around 4,000, whereas in George V’s day it was an estimated 100,000.
The catalogue of loss continues with shrouded displays of the individuals of other species, including a Tasmanian Thylacine, one of the last of its kind, which came from London Zoo. The Thylacine is an example of a species that has become extinct in less than a century. The viewer will also find veils covering the Galapagos giant tortoise, famed through Darwin’s research, as well as the south American toucan, the pangolin, now being hunted to extinction for its scales, the mountain gazelle, okapi and albatross.
Some of the shrouded animals came from Bristol Zoo. One of them, a Sumatran rhino (a species now considered extinct in the wild) was captured in 1884. The preserved body of the animal survived the WWII bombing of the former Bristol Museum. In veiling the animals, paradoxically the museum draws more attention to them, revealing their stories for their own sake for perhaps the first time.
Museum’s “unique role” in raising awareness
Isla Gladstone recognises the importance of this: “We have a unique role to play with our animal stories and histories.” Gladstone notes that some of the animals currently threatened by extinction can come as a surprise to visitors: “the Giraffe and Chimp…extinctions can be silent”.
It is this quiet ongoing loss that is most disturbing, and there is an expectation that the visitor will be both shocked and moved by the stories behind the veil of silence. In fact, Professor Ben Garrod, one of the museum’s ambassadors, says that was part of the plan behind the shrouded displays, to “inform, shock and inspire”. More than that, he hopes that “museum visitors will leave ready to take action”.
This is a theme that increasingly resonates with the policy of other museums across the world. The menace posed by plastic to the environment has been explored by The Horniman Museum and the Rotterdam Natural History Museum among others. As the Extinction Rebellion movement gains support, their actions too are receiving more attention in the museum world, and the sector is questioning how they can respond to climate change.
The history of the relationship between humans and animals can be bizarre and troubled. Two of the veiled exhibits at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery illustrate this well, and it is interesting that they are both examples of some of the closest relatives of the human animal. The first is a chimpanzee that acquired a habit of drinking gin when it was kept as a pet. The second is Alfred, an example of the critically endangered lowland gorilla, who was allegedly nursed by an African woman after his parents were killed. Alfred spent his life among humans, living at Bristol Zoo from 1930 until his death in 1948.
Inspired to act
Inspired by its young visitors and the desire to view the animals as individuals with stories to tell, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery shows how the conventional displays of an earlier era – in this case taxidermied animals – can still produce narratives that are revealing, provocative and relevant.
More than this, in making it clear that action on the part of the visitor is part of the plan, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery reminds us that museums are voices for change. Visitors are encouraged to contribute thoughts and ideas via an extinction tree. The green leaves on which they write are a sign of hope.
The museums of the future are the ones which, like Bristol, are confident of their value to the bigger picture and the global issues that affect not only humans but other species. Arguably, museums have come of age when they move the visitor to be the change they want to see in the world, rather than a passive viewer of what lies behind the glass – or the mourning veil.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.