I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
The Future of Extinction
A Winchester Rifle might at first seem out of place in an exhibition about natural history. However, Extinction or Survival?, at Manchester Museum, focuses on the impact, both good and bad, humans have had on the fate of other species.
The evolution of firearms meant that other creatures could be killed in greater numbers and more rapidly, partly for survival and partly for sport – as in the case of the passenger pigeon, which, in taxidermied form, is one of the bird-exhibits.
Amongst the other creatures whose numbers were depleted by bullets was the American Bison (also known as the buffalo). A taxidermied American Bison is the largest object in the exhibition. It has local connections as the creature concerned lived at Belle Vue – the zoological park and gardens, which closed in 1977. The capture and transportation of the bison, and how it responded to the new climate and surroundings, almost demands an exhibition in itself.
At the other end of the size-ometer, one case displays butterflies and, less aesthetically pleasing, cockroaches and mosquitoes. The curators at Manchester Museum want visitors to think about the criteria we would use to assess how much we want a species to survive. There is a chance to vote on whether you would opt to save the mosquito, the cockroach or the brown rat.
The name, which first comes, at least to my mind, with reference to extinction is the dodo. A life-size version of one is amongst the first sights when you enter the gallery. In 2002 scientists determined, through DNA analysis, from a specimen at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, that the long-extinct bird belongs in the dove and pigeon family. Once you know this, it is hard not to imagine the dodo as an overfed pigeon.
The dodo's fate was sealed after Dutch sailors began using the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius as a stopover in 1598. Its habitat was disrupted, partly for pig farming and, having previously lived in isolation, the dodo's size and inability to flee from predators meant that its survival chances were very slim.
Speaking at the press preview, evolutionary biologist and broadcaster, Dr Ben Garrod spoke about the "power of one", when it comes to issues of biodiversity and climate change. "We can have a huge impact on our world", he said, by something as simple as building a 'bug hotel' or, if we have a garden, leaving part of it wild enough to attract birds and insects.
Dr Garrod, who has appeared on the BBC with Sir David Attenborough, was joined by Dr Rachel Webster, Curator of Botany, Manchester Museum. Dr Webster said that, rather than just reading about the history of extinction, "there is something about being in the same room" as extinct creatures such as the passenger pigeon, which feeds an "emotional connection" to the issues involved.
Bees are not amongst the exhibits. This is surprising given how caught up their survival and the pollination they do is to human survival. Manchester Museum has, though, recently devoted special events to the subject, such as After the Bees: Poetry meets Science. It is also possible that bees will have an exhibition all of their own at the museum.
Both Dr Webster and Garrod stressed that the exhibition is careful not to pass judgement on those who sell other plants and creatures, for remedies and ornaments, to facilitate their own economic survival.
However, one display case is made up of items, from the endangered list, seized by HM Revenue and Customs officials. Amongst other decorative and garish items, they include an umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot and a handbag made of crocodile skin. You might think twice about sending a thank you note, if you received them as presents.
The mahogany writing desk of Elizabeth Gaskell's - author of Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life), published in 1848 - is displayed as an example of how the use of certain species has endangered their survival.
Freshwater pearl mussels and coral reefs are further reminders that no aspect of the natural world are affected by changes in their habitat.
Each visitor will take his or her own reflections and feelings away from Extinction or Survival? However, the questions it raises are hard to untangle ourselves from whether we care about our own survival or that of other species.
WWF-UK and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) recently published a report, which found that global wildlife populations have fallen by 58 per cent since 1970, and are set to fall a further 9 per cent by the end of the decade. The report attributed the decline in vertebrate species to deforestation, pollution, overfishing, illegal wildlife trade and climate change.
Even if, like me, you find taxidermied animals a bit creepy, Extinction or Survival? is an exhibition, which reminds us of issues, which, in our busy lives, it is easy to forget, as we sit in traffic jams or race through exhaust fumes on our way to earn our daily crust.
If you want to read more about Extinction or Survival? and specifically the Giant Panda, which is featured, I recommend this blog by the by Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology. It tells the story of how the panda was part of the International Hunting Exhibition, Berlin, 1937.