Art

Mourning Extinction with a Museum’s Animal Artifacts

In Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, artist Christina Seely repurposes natural history specimens for an emotional exhibition about animal extinction.

Christina Seely, “Next of Kin: Sable Antelope, Hippotragus niger – Vulnerable​” (courtesy the artist)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Last year, the Bramble Cay melomys, an Australian rodent, was declared extinct. Its habitat, a grassy island in the Great Barrier Reef, was wrecked by rising sea levels and conservation neglect. While it was the first mammal whose disappearance was attributed to climate change, many other species are on the brink of extinction due to human-made threats, including shifting tides, habitat destruction, hunting, and war.

The loss of a whole species we may never have personally encountered can feel abstract. Next of Kin: Seeing Extinction through the Artist’s Lens, now on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), aims to create an emotional engagement. The exhibition by artist Christina Seely in collaboration with the Canary Project, an ecologically focused collective, features Seely’s photography alongside objects from Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, part of the HMNH complex. The latter are recontextualized within a contemplative narrative of vanishing biodiversity.

Installation view of the kinetic mirrored light boxes in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (courtesy Christina Seely, via Harvard Museum of Natural History)

“The whole of the exhibition was designed as a kind of space of reverence that offers an emotional bridge between art and science within this natural history museum context,” Seely told Hyperallergic. “It really is both a space to mourn and deal with the emotions that accompany the facts related to contemporary extinction, but also an experience that helps the viewer connect to the stories of these animals.”

It’s an exhibition that rewards extended time in the gallery, too. Seely created a series of 10 light box Next of Kin Portraits of taxidermy endangered animals on view in HMNH. They gradually light up and fade, so that at one moment the face of a jaguar is barely visible in mirrored glass, while at another point it gazes directly into your eyes. A sound piece by Matthew Patterson-Curry grows more cacophonous as the portraits become more distinct, with human-made noise giving way to the calls of extinct birds. On a nearby wall are Seely’s Species Impact daguerreotypes of animals currently under threat due to climate change in the arctic and tropics, including the snowy owl and American flamingo. As with the light boxes, it’s impossible to look at the daguerreotypes without seeing yourself reflected.

Installation view of daguerreotypes of species impacted by climate change in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“The immersive experience and elements of discovery are designed to help the viewer slow down and engage with the space, linger, and want to learn more,” Seely explained. “Each piece is centered around evoking a profound sense of empathy with our ‘next of kin,’ so the use of the mirrored surfaces, the direct eye contact with the animals, and the poetics in the texts and sculptural installations are key to inspiring connection.”

The nine sculptural installations, made with Ed Morris and Susannah Sayler of the Canary Project, feature physical remains of animals both extinct and endangered. Horns of a giant sable antelope, which is critically endangered by military conflict and a restricted range in Angola, have stunning curves and ridges. The tiny egg of an extinct heath hen is protected by a huge mound of cotton that visually reinforces the preciousness of the diminutive artifact. (The final heath hen, nicknamed “Booming Ben” for its call, which could carry further than a gunshot, died on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.) Boxes of bones from the great auk hint at how populous the flightless bird once was, until the predator-free species encountered humans, who took advantage of its fatal trust and stuffed pillows with its feathers. A great auk was last seen in 1844 on Iceland’s Eldey Island.

Egg of the extinct heath hen in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Other objects require more attention to perceive, such as a North Island giant moa visible only through bird-shaped slats. On the front of its black box is an unlabeled peephole, through which you can glimpse a small Mappin’s moa feather. The wingless moas were an older loss, eradicated centuries ago due to overhunting in New Zealand. Nearby, a poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Far Company,” acts as a eulogy for them: “At times now from some margin of the day / I can hear birds of another country / not the whole song but a brief phrase of it / out of a music that I may have heard … ”

Peephole view of an extinct Mappin’s moa’s feather in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

While exploring Next of Kin, under the gaze of Seely’s light box animals and the artificial eyes of a “herd” of animal heads, I was reminded of the Room of Extinct and Endangered Animals at the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in Paris. Unlike the rest of the French museum, which is brightly lit and lively with schoolchildren racing around the displays, that gallery is darkly illuminated, with taxidermy specimens including the extinct Tasmanian tiger and Schomburgk’s deer of Thailand positioned like specters in glass cabinets. Some, such as the only surviving black emu skeleton, are so obliterated they’re down to fragments. There’s a feeling of being in a hallowed chamber that acknowledges the death of these animals in a way that most natural history dioramas do not.

Taxidermy cases in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

After visiting Next of Kin, I found that the experience of it followed me through the Harvard museum, where I noticed the Siberian tiger and African hunting dog that had appeared in Seely’s light boxes among the crowds of taxidermy. One of the institution’s historic rooms, the Great Mammal Hall, has changed little since it was built in 1872, with gargantuan whale skeletons suspended over cases and cases of specimens, including one tall enough for a full-size giraffe. Museums with 19th-century displays like this are sometimes perceived as obsolete, especially as science and natural history institutions move towards more interactive, modern exhibitions. Yet Next of Kin argues that these collections remain essential, for a better understanding of the ongoing human impact on the Earth’s environment and our failures in the past.

“The exhibition is in conversation with the whole of the museum and its collections, so it uses the language of museum conservation — say, in the use of materials, boxes, jars, and labeling that are used to store and conserve specimens — and of course the actual animals that can be found in neighboring halls,” Seely stated. “At the same time, the exhibition subverts what the viewer expects to find, leaving questions unanswered, versus the expected answers they tend to find in other spaces focused on a different way of talking about or explaining science.”

Installation view of one of the kinetic mirrored light boxes in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (courtesy Christina Seely, via Harvard Museum of Natural History)
Installation view of Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (courtesy Christina Seely, via Harvard Museum of Natural History)
Installation view of Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (courtesy Christina Seely, via Harvard Museum of Natural History)
Installation view of Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A narwhal tusk in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with the trunk of a tree once inhabited by both the presumed extinct imperial woodpecker and the critically endangered thick-billed parrot (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Bones from the extinct great auk in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Skull of a California grizzly bear in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Glimpsing the skeleton of an extinct North Island giant moa Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Horns of a giant sable antelope in Next of Kin at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Next of Kin: Seeing Extinction through the Artist’s Lens continues at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through June 4. 

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