Biodiversity Loss On Display

I originally wrote this way back in the alternate dimension of January 2020 and for reasons obvious and less obvious it never went out where I intended it to. I’ve found myself digging it out and sending it to others a few times since though so here’s me finally putting it out there, for ease of finding and sending on, more than anything else.

Public displays in museums are the thinnest veneers both in terms of the number and type of objects you encounter but also because very few museum colleagues get to work on exhibitions, very infrequently. Having said that, they are a very ‘loud’ veneer (mixed metaphors much) designed, as they are, to speak directly to a broad visitor group. I’ve recently been working on and thinking about large scale display changes in museums which come up fairly infrequently but present a lot of challenges, particularly when it comes to the natural world and especially looking at topics like biodiversity. How do you squeeze the vastness of the concept of biodiversity, a topic that is complex, important and flawed, into the finite volume of a display case for a diverse general visitor audience?

I’ve recently been working on ideas relating to biodiversity and biodiversity loss and even finding a starting point can be difficult. Beyond the initial dictionary definitions of some of the jargon terms that we have to deal with (what is biodiversity? Do people know what an animal is? and the one that sends a shiver down many a science communicator’s spine, what is a species?) how do you even begin to frame biodiversity loss?

Image of honeycomb worm reefs from Swansea Bay

Do we situate all of our content within Western Science frameworks? If we do, do we say we do? Do we start with our own voice and include pluralities when we find them already out there or solicit other’s viewpoints first? Do we source and present all of our content in English? Do we use words at all? Should the whole process be participative or just parts of it?

Do we start with ‘better-known’ (very much debatable as how widely known any fact in natural history is) global losses like the total extinction of the dodo or the dinosaurs, well not the birds, as a hook to then explore loss in all its facets? Or is it better to start with parochial losses which are going on in the local area and scale up? Do we focus on the well-worn roads when it comes to classic examples, anecdotes and studies or do we try to leverage the full richness of biodiversity and our collections? Do we treat natural and ‘human’ caused losses together or unnaturally separate them? How do you keep interpretation succinct and punchy when almost any biological fact ideally needs multiple layers of caveats, disclaimers, exceptions and ideally pointing to the vast literature on developing ideas in any given topic? As museums with millions of biological specimens in our stores how do we talk about biodiversity loss without at the least hypocrisy and at best self-reflection?

Selection of different coloured tellin shells

How do we act as a springboard to motivate visitors to be interested in biodiversity loss when even with amazing institutional access information sources are hard to find, contradictory, paywalled, and for digital material corrupted or just missing altogether? Do we pretend that all this information comes from the ether or have full literature reviews and references available for visitors who want them? Do we court controversy and provocation or play it safe and risk adverse? Do we pretend to ‘stick to the facts’ or take a stance? Do we acknowledge that thinking about biodiversity loss is depressing but not hopeless?Do we just present the information we’ve corralled together around our collections or offer meta-narratives about the processes involved in even quantifying or qualifying how different species are faring? Do we point to the null-data, in this case, the majority of species we just can’t say much about, let alone have an indication of whether populations and habitats are declining, the reasons for the decline and historical distributions?

How do we create content that doesn’t quickly go out of date? Should we be opaque about the specimens we can’t display because they are too fragile or, with biodiversity loss in mind, too rare to risk long expose to display environments? Do we acquire new material from the field for new displays? How do we show processes, change and dynamic organisms through static specimens? Are there realistically any technological solutions that won’t cause long term maintenance issues, look ‘retro’ in two years time or, as is often the case, inexplicably refuse to work despite being fine when tested off display?

These are just some of the questions I’ve recently been wrestling with with colleagues at the start of the process. It’d be fun to come back to these in a few years time to see which of these questions we ignored, which ones we centralised, which ones got winnowed out by the drive to hit deadlines and which ones we came up with creative solutions for.

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