Extinction Voices: Persephone Pearl talks to Isla Gladstone

The idea for Remembrance Day for Lost Species emerged in 2010 after a visit to Bristol Museum to see Alinah Azadeh’s art installation,  The Gifts – an extraordinary large-scale sculptural piece that explored and transmuted the grief of Azadeh’s bereavement through the ritual wrapping and assembling of 999 donated personal objects. From the museum’s art space, I wandered up to the natural sciences gallery and saw, in poorly-lit cabinets, a dodo and an unfamiliar stuffed animal – a thylacine. This recently extinct carnivorous marsupial, whose story I’d never heard, transfixed me. It seemed to be calling me, holding me to account. 

So, when last summer I read that the Bristol Museum natural sciences team had shrouded a number of their extinct  and endangered specimens with funeral veils, including the dodo and the thylacine, I was keen to find out more. I asked senior curator Isla Gladstone about the initiative and she explained that the project, Extinction Voices, was a response to 2019’s global IPBES scientific report, catalysed by the concerns of a class of local school children who visited and saw the museum’s famous stuffed tiger. In a conversation at ONCA, Brighton, in October 2019, Isla told me about the project’s genesis, and I followed up our conversation with a visit to the Bristol installation in December 2019 supported by Isla’s colleagues Rhian and Bob.

“You’re hiding the truth”

“The [Freshford Primary School] children wrote letters to the museum director saying that they came to the museum and they liked the animals, sort of, but what was this? We weren’t really looking after them properly – they looked a bit dusty. And they’re right. One of the specimens is a tiger which has beautiful gold lettering inscribed into its case saying, ‘Shot and presented by His Majesty King George V in 1911’. The children said that people were looking at the tiger and taking photos, and laughing. When the children got home, they researched the story of the tiger: King George V went on a trophy hunt in India, and he and his party shot 39 tigers and something like 18 rhinos – 61 animals in total, within 10 days, just after Christmas 1911. He had been in New Delhi Durbar for the coronation. That’s completely colonial driven species extinction.

“The children said: ‘When we got home, we were not laughing anymore. We read that tiger’s story and we were so shocked and devastated. You need to be telling people this story. It’s so important that we understand the past in order to understand our present and save tigers today. People could be doing that from your museum. But at the moment, it’s not telling that story at all. You’re hiding the truth.’ Which is what the curators have been saying for a long time. And they said that the story was devastating, but ‘it’s even more devastating that this tiger is not being given a legacy for the future of its species. Does the museum not care that there’s less than 4000 left in the world?’

“They’ve obviously been empowered by their teacher and probably by world contexts of children saying it so clearly – Youth Strike for Climate and this kind of thing. They were Year 6. There were 31 letters to the director. One of  them said, ‘if I was in your boots, I would give that tiger some respect.’” 

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Why did the children encounter a collection that was dusty, and inadequately signed?

“It’s a symptom of museums having under-invested in their natural science collections for many years. Because of cuts and perhaps a reaction against taxidermy. But we have to confront that past, don’t we? It’s not about disposing of it. It’s about understanding its current value. And you could argue that that collection is now one of the most current in terms of difficult issues, but also potential solutions within the museum… It’s a place people encounter wildlife that they may not see otherwise. They’re familiar with it, they love it. And the animals have stories that are quite devastating but link us specifically to wild animals.” 

The natural sciences team knew they had to do something significant, to show that they took the children’s concerns seriously. They invited Freshford Year 6 back to talk more and plan together:

“How could we respond at the level this needed? We wanted to create something with a dynamic response. You can’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, we just updated the label to ‘extinct’ and then we taught people about it as a historical thing.’ It has to be active, it has to be right now. And the children were really keen on the stories and helped work out which other animals we’d bring the stories out of. They had loads of ideas. One thing that kept coming through for us was voices. The voices of the children, of the museum, the voices of the stories that haven’t been told. The voices of the scientists stepping up to say, this is really important. So we called the intervention ‘Extinction Voices’. The children had focused on the tiger but we wanted to broaden that out because we were already thinking, how do we convey this with the gallery as a whole? We wanted something that was very visual, very impactful. We started talking to people and they did not realise how close to extinction many of these familiar animals are. 

“So we got together as a wider team to come up with a solution that we could implement cheaply and simply. Partly to make it dynamic, so we wouldn’t be held up by having to procure or design stuff. We started thinking about mourning for the species, and that kind of loss from sight. And our 3D designer came up with the solution – these veils. This was literally put together by me and my two lovely colleagues, sewing onto bits of wire because we didn’t want to squash the taxidermy. Some of the veils are around the outsides of the cabinets because we can’t get into the cabinets without specialist glaziers and stuff. It’s so important, not seeing the face. Just hanging something in front of the face does convey a lot of information very quickly. People are getting the message. Each veiled animal has a label with their IUCN Red List data – extinct, endangered, critically endangered. There’s three extinct and the rest endangered, so it’s about imagining a world without these animals. But they are still here.”

Starting a conversation

“We wanted to do this as a kind of wake up thing. But we couldn’t just leave people in this mourning space, so we put information panels in there. The theme of the exhibition is listening to stories of animals from our past, using our voices for their animal futures. There’s a nice quote from Paul Hawken: ‘Nature is noisy. It swoops, it sweeps, it bubbles. But extinction is silent and has no voice but our own.’ We used that, and then we’ve given the top drivers identified in the IPBES report that relate to the animals – like deforestation, destroying their homes – and what people could do about it. 

“And we worked out, what actions can we give people? It felt really uncomfortable for us. We’re not a conservation charity that is actually stopping palm oil production or something. It felt clunky, we didn’t feel expert enough in it… But actually we can engage with, and do understand, the history and power of our collection, and working with audiences and communities. So in the end, it was about your voice. Extinction Voices, and then your voice. What do you think about animal extinction? What can people do about animal extinction? The idea of a collective of voices. We have an ‘extinction tree’ where people can add post-its with their thoughts and ideas. They’re all up on the tree, they’re growing, they’re actually taking over the gallery now, a bit. Everyone can see their own idea and it’s been really positive. We wanted to create a space for conversation. We felt that’s what we can be doing, as a museum. And it really has enabled conversation in that gallery. 

“We didn’t know how impactful it would be. We wanted to be relevant again, in our city – for this collection to be seen as incredibly relevant to the current situation. And for audiences to feel active and understand the issues more. But actually, it went international. There was this art strike, #artstrike, that came after it. They were looking at that idea of how an organisation could support the climate strikes in September. They used the same methodology of a shroud over their objects. And the Crystal Palace dinosaurs – did you see that they shrouded their elk? They said, ‘we were inspired by you.’ You look back and you think maybe it was obvious, but actually, at the time, it felt like we put our hearts into it and it was quite brave.”

Museums and solidarity – international and intergenerational

I was impressed by the project and also wanted to dig more into the quality of the language that museums use. Isla and I talked about Lost Species Day’s journey exploring white supremacy and colonialism. The truth is, you can’t separate animal extinctions from the genocides of colonialism and capitalism. If you’re going to tell the story of the thylacine, for example, make sure you talk about genocidal intent against indigenous Tasmanian people. Ecocides are often driven by genocidal strategies to harm and kill people who are in the way of development. 

A lot of the mainstream white-dominated environmental movement erases historic and contemporary racism, as well as indigenous and local environmental knowledge. This was, at last, included in the 2019 IPBES report. As Isla put it, “the voices of indigenous communities are missing at the moment from our intervention. We’re talking about post-colonial all the time, but we’re not post-colonial! This is not a historic issue. That’s one problem with museums. Their attitude has been that all these things were hunted and killed, but we don’t do that anymore. We did. People do, and we’re intrinsically linked to it through our systems.”

The Extinction Voices project was accessible, affordable and temporary, and as such I think it could inspire the curators of other museum collections to undertake similar interventions. There are questions around what sorts of funereal signifier might be appropriate in collections in different countries. Would the Victorian mourning veil work in other places? Are Eurocentric visual aesthetics acceptable for use in museums in colonised lands? Issues around museums’ historic complicity in appropriation and erasure of indigenous rites and aesthetics would need to be sensitively engaged with. And what about in museums across the Global South? Could there be a diversity of mourning signifiers across diverse museum contexts?

Language matters

How can museums best show solidarity with young people, as well as with the people whose voices they’ve historically ignored or silenced? The language used in their signage and educational materials needs to be interrogated. Justice needs to be centred in thinking and speaking about environmental change. As co-director of an educational organisation with a core aim of supporting young people’s empowerment, resilience and wellbeing around climate and environmental change, this is something I am passionate about. The language used in educational materials should:

  • Not separate ‘humans’ from ‘nature’ 
  • Not resort to the giant white, all-monopolising ‘we’ 
  • Encourage young people to develop critical discernment around language and to ask questions like, “what do you mean by ‘us’?”, “who’s actually doing this?”, “what are the real drivers of this?” and so on – to interrogate any sweeping statements which come from outdated racist and/or colonial assumptions. 

Bristol Museum would do well to invest in anti-racist and decolonial guidance in the design of their future permanent signage and language. Some of the wording and advice that featured in the temporary signage was, as Isla put it, ‘clunky’: overly simplistic; focusing on individual actions rather than systemic critique; lacking indigenous and local voices. I look forward to seeing this develop.

The Extinction Voices project is a great case study of active curation, with a motivated and dynamic team doing something child-led on a relative shoestring, guided by a strong vision for their responsibility as a collection. It could be brilliant inspiration for other museums to undertake similar public work – ideally, around Lost Species Day, fostering the development. of peer-to-peer dialogue and best practice around anti-racist / decolonial natural sciences curation.

Coda: A kind of pilgrimage

I had not been to Bristol for many years, having lived there when I first had a baby. The city has bittersweet memories because I was not happy there, other than when playing with and caring for Felix. I never settled deeply even though I wanted to. So, trailing through the cold streets made me think of different kinds of deaths and losses. This trip was a pilgrimage and the gallery visit afforded me a profound moment. I stayed there for hours, reading every sign and label, obsessively photographing, trying to take in every story, wanting to attend to every loss. Before I left, the curator Rhian unlocked the door of the thylacine’s cabinet, to allow me to get close to the creature. Standing silently in front of the shrouded thylacine in a gallery filled with mourning veils and disappearing animals and birds brought me a kind of full circle. Once more, I felt the urge to kiss and cradle the thylacine. Once more, I offered it my tears. Once more, I promised to never forget it.

I was able to get very close to the thylacine

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