A rendering of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (Image courtesy of Adjaye Associates)

A rendering of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (all images courtesy of Adjaye Associates)

Earlier this month, workers in England broke ground on a $46 million memorial to extinct species. It was designed by architect David Adjaye for a site overlooking Bowers Quarry on the touristy Isle of Portland, Dezeen reported.

When completed in 2016, the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) will spiral 100 feet off the cliff like a Portland Screw, a “turreted” gastropod fossil frequently found on the isle. Inside, a winding walkway will lead visitors upwards past walls carved with images of the 860 species deemed extinct since the dodo — including the passenger pigeon, the Bali tiger, and the golden toad. There will be plenty of room for the extinct plants and animals of the future. Whenever another dies out, museum attendants will toll a 10-foot-wide “bell of biodiversity” made of roach, a local stone rife with Jurassic shellfish.

A rendering of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (Image courtesy of Adjaye Associates)

A rendering of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (click to enlarge)

The Isle of Portland is a strategic location for the museum. It’s part of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Britain. Its native Portland Stone, a limestone riddled with large ammonite fossils, has been used everywhere from ancient Roman building projects to the façade of the United Nations building in New York. In fact, when architect Christopher Wren utilized it in the rebuilding of London following a citywide fire in 1666, his collaborator Robert Hooke studied the fossils within and made the now-obvious discovery that extinction can happen.

MEMO is undoubtedly poignant, and the reflective experience it will offer is certainly valuable. But it does feel a bit like raising a monument to the dead long before a war is over. Just this week, conservationists announced that out of our planet’s 76,199 species, 22,413 are in danger of extinction. The trustees of the observatory claim that their building could “capture the public imagination” of as many as 300,000 visitors a year, thus helping prevent the loss of future species. In a video promoting the memorial, Eden Project co-founder Tim Smit explains: “If we can build something that makes us pause and reflect, that makes us smile and celebrate, but also occasionally have a little bit of melancholy as we reflect on our need to actually act, it will be a great building, a cathedral.”

But $46 million is a lot of money. And other nonprofits have created successful awareness campaigns at a fraction of the cost. It’s hard not to wonder why the building’s countless patrons didn’t instead donate their money to organizations that, say, fight overfishing and poaching. Or help fund political campaigns that promote environmental protection. As is, MEMO feels as much a reminder of misguided charitable giving as it is a monument to species past. We’re not only stewards of the Earth, but also stewards of our pocketbooks, and the two are indelibly linked.

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

2 replies on “$46M Spent on Extinction Monument Could Help Curb Extinction”

  1. I’m surprised at how reactionary the conclusion of this article is, esp on an art blog — yes, 46 mil is a lot of nickels, but my guess is that this work will affect the psyche of many for generations to come (in a way that a lobbying group or whatever cannot). Moreover, environmental conservation will never be accomplished through policy alone; we as individuals must also be compelled to enact change as social practice — and experiential art is part of that process. I think this project has the potential to be really amazing — can’t think of any other monument that actively engages time and scale in this way, and to help us conceptualize the unfathomable.

    Anyhow, while the effectiveness of MEMO as a built project remains to be seen, I think that the shortsighted and conservative conclusion presented here is in general a dangerous one, one that keeps us slaves of capital instead of actively working to construct the world and collective imagination through creative practice. It could easily be transposed onto say, kara walker’s domino sugar factory piece (“oh, that money would be better spent by a social justice non-profit”) — and we all know that conclusion would be wrong.

    1. Hi Colleen, I appreciate your point. I’m clearly in favor of using art to bring awareness to social issues, and I think MEMO is an admirable work. I was simply questioning the soundness of this particular plan to bring awareness to the issue of mass extinction by building a monument on a tourist island. I don’t think it should automatically be considered a good use of charitable funds simply because it’s art. I think experiential art has it’s place in helping to effect change, and yet it’s hard for me to believe that this particular $46 million couldn’t have been spent more effectively.

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