The end of the world? Depends who’s asking…

A review of the Natural History Museum ‘Extinction: Not the end of the world?’ exhibition, on display until 8 September 2013

Source: The Natural History Museum 

To conservationists and ecologists across the globe, ‘extinction’ is the filthiest swear word. Its finality is chilling. Or is it?

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is Imperial College’s next door neighbour and is hosting an exhibition of photographs, real specimens and interactive multimedia dedicated to species which are on, or have been tipped over the brink of extinction.

So, is it worth the bank-breaking £4.00 entrance fee?

I took a little trip up the grandiose Natural History Museum steps (whilst promising myself I will take advantage of this place more often) along with friend and fellow student, April. Her attendance may have hinged on the fact that she was unaware that she would be photographically documented. Many thanks to April!

April - pumped for the fossils!

April – pumped for the fossils! Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

The exhibition represents a calm, darkened, if slightly eerie respite from the never-ending flux of school children in the museum’s entrance hall. The aesthetics of the smallish (but double, if not triple, volume ceiling) are very natural – everything is mounted on raw wood with subtle placards underneath each exhibit.

There are a variety of tales told here; extinct species sit alongside survivors of previous mass extinctions. A life-sized dodo specimen is accompanied by a large sign telling of its existence on Mauritius, an island doomed to lose most of its endemic species upon colonisation. Audiences can admire a large Leatherback Turtle model whilst learning of its heroic survival through previous mass extinctions.

The famous dodo... peers at an extinct bird specimen. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

The famous dodo… peers at an extinct bird specimen. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

Interspersed amongst the various beady-eyed stuffed creatures are large educational boards explaining some of the key terms such as ‘mass extinction’ and providing a little historical background on when we have faced such biodiversity crises in the past. This is great for getting audiences new to this topic up to speed, but it is difficult to discern the target audience of the information. Or perhaps this is the point? Text detailing the various geological epochs will definitely not hold the attention of a 10 year old but may provide a stimulating read to a jaded parent.

Different features, at different eye levels, help to engage all audiences. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

Different displays, at different eye levels, help to engage all audiences. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

What stands this exhibition apart is the upside to extinction which it shows. Newly opened niches, left behind by deceased species, create opportunity for new species to evolve, or existing ones to widen their ecological range. Established ecosystems can often facilitate complacency among the dominant organisms. Extinctions can give newcomer species a chance to compete and win a place in our constantly changing world. After all, the Permian Mass Extinction allowed mammals (us!) and avian dinosaurs to repopulate the Earth.

Species which have fared well under mankind's reign are included too. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

Species which have fared well under mankind’s reign are included too. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

The exhibition successfully mixes exotic and more familiar species, whilst touching on some very pressing conservation issues. Poaching of tigers, for instance, is explained by an engaging and informative video – accompanied by a real specimen of a tiger and distressingly, a tiny tiger cub. Along with a horrendous tiger fur coat. The co-location of these objects very neutrally provides the viewer with the tools needed to make up their own mind on the subject. I watched as every child in the exhibition stood eye-to-eye with the tiny cub, captivated, and then opted to watch the 5 minute long video. The importance of such education for future generations is paramount.

Before leaving the extinction, with its haunting animal cries emanating from various interactive devices, I stumbled upon the wishing tree. A wire mesh, blanketed in brightly coloured ‘leaves’ with the thoughts and hopes of visitors makes for a touching and amusing read!

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April leaves her contribution to the wishing tree. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

George Bray's wishes for the future. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

George Bray’s wishes for the future. Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

My one criticism, and perhaps this is fuelled by my privileged background as an Imperial College biologist, is the lack of ‘wow’ factor. Whilst the exhibit is undoubtedly interesting to children and adults alike, I have to admit I was ready to leave by the end.  I had seen little that I haven’t encountered in a museum or on TV before. Perhaps I am spoilt, but the ‘Extinct’ exhibition at the Hunterian Museum promises skeletons of wool mammoths, Tasmanian tigers and Megalodon sharks. Hmmmm.

'Extinct', Hunterian Museum. Looks pretty exciting... Image: Royal College of Surgeons

‘Extinct’, Hunterian Museum. Looks pretty exciting… Image: Royal College of Surgeons

However, bearing in mind a target audience of children and parents without a science background, the exhibition is excellent. It does a sterling job of communicating, in an exciting and inspiring light, a topic which can seem to be only full of doom and gloom!

Fun for kids of all ages! Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

Fun for kids of all ages! Image: Marie Christine Loedolff

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One thought on “The end of the world? Depends who’s asking…

  1. Pingback: These 5 Ancient Monsters Couldn’t Survive Climate Change, So How Can We? | Jay F. Nelson

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