Missed history-telling opportunities

In my explorations of reintroduction in Norway and Sweden, I’ve been interested in how those human interventions are told (or not) to the public. When I visited the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet (NRM) in Stockholm earlier this year, I couldn’t help but be struck by the many missed opportunities to tell entangled stories.

In the Natur i Sverige (Nature in Sweden) permanent exhibit, the visitors get to meet Swedish fauna, including wolves, red foxes, moose, beaver, wild boar, and the “new animals” I mentioned in a previous post. So I was particularly interested in how the reintroduced animals like beaver and wild boar would be handled.

Beaver in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm

Beaver in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm

The beaver exhibit features a beaver dam with some family members inside and others outside. There is a digital information board adjacent to the display where you can read about the beaver’s dam and construction techniques, as well as family life in both Swedish and English. This is in line with on a sign at the beginning of the exhibit on which the designers say that “the exhibit concerns ecology — on the interplay between plants and animals and their environment. …We discuss also animal’s behaviour — on family life, searching for food and reproduction.” The exhibits contain a huge lacuna in what is being presented: people. People have been left out of the animals’ environments entirely. There is no mention that beavers were extinct in Sweden by the 1870s, or that they were reintroduced beginning in the 1920s. There is no discussion of beaver hunting, the historical beaver products of castoreum and furs, or conflicts with forestry and landowners. Beavers become biological entities with no history.

Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet specimen of the quagga, which became extinct in 1873.

Unfortunately, this approach carries over at NRM even with species that really need to have their histories told because they don’t exist anymore. An example of this is the quagga foetus on display across from the ‘extinct animals’ case. The label with the quagga tells about who collected the specimen and his illustrious career. It also says “Because the species is extinct, the quagga foetus acquired in 1775 is one of the museum’s most valuable objects.” But that’s it. Here was a great opportunity to talk about the history of the quagga, including how the Dutch settlement in South Africa led to its demise, but the opportunity was not taken.

The museum really has a great collection of extinct animal specimens, including the thylacine (extinct 1936), great auk (1844), passenger pigeon (1914), bluebuck (c1800) and many more. But none of these animals are given histories other than the place the species lived and the date of extinction. The general sign in the exhibit simply says “Displayed here are examples of extinct specimens. Some of these have been wiped out by humans, others due to natural causes.” NRM has not taken the opportunity to talk about extinction, what it means, how it happens, and what is lost. The passenger pigeon extinction centennial exhibits are bringing extinction stories to the forefront, and although I would like to see more emphasis on hope in these exhibits, discussing extinction is critical to avoiding it in the future.

While I understand that sharing the biological characteristics of fauna is a central mission of NRM, there are animals in their cases screaming to have their histories told. From the visits I’ve made in natural history museums, NRM’s approach is pretty typical. I think the museum sector needs to take the name “natural history” more seriously and embrace telling animal histories. In so doing, they would be telling entangled human-animal histories that are currently overlooked.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Whose rivers are more pleasant? New Zealand vs England

Reading Andrew McRae’s paper “Fluvial Nation: rivers, mobility and poetry in Early Modern England”, I was struck by its opening statement. In 1665, the speaker of the House of Commons, addressing the King and Parliament reflected that: “Cosmosgraphers do agree that this Island is incomparably furnished with pleasant Rivers, like Veins in the Natural Body, […]

— envirohistory NZ

Fellowship: Baltica-Stipendium

— European Society for Environmental History

RCC Newsletter, Issue 20

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

King Cod

Early in July, I had the privilege of being an instructor in the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) Summer School in Porto, Portugal. Part of the School included a wonderful day at the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, which exhibits the history of codfish industry in northern Portugal. The museum included historical boat displays and a cod aquarium, with a touch of modern art inspired by cod mixed in.

Cod drying on racks on the Lofoton Islands, Norway. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

Cod drying on racks on the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo by FA Jørgensen. All rights reserved.

Codfish is consumed regularly by Portuguese who call both the fish and all culinary dishes containing the fish bacalhau. Bacalhau has medieval roots. Norwegian fishermen ramped up their cod catches and began exporting to elsewhere in Europe in earnest in the 13th century, according to the latest archeological investigations. Portugal became a primary consumer of the dried and salted form of cod, which shipped well over long distances. Portuguese grocery stores today have piles and piles of different grades of bacalhau.

Sculpture “Escuta o Outro Lado” (Listen to the other side) by João Sotero in the Ílhavo Maritime Museum

During my museum visit, I noticed a series of questions written on the wall which were posed to the visitor about cod. I was struck by the last of these: “O bacalhau pode estar em vias de extinção?”  (Could the cod be on its way to extinction?) This was particularly poignant given the nearby display of one of the museum’s modern art sculptures, “Escuta o Outro Lado” (Listen to the other side) by João Sotero. The sculpture has a fish skeleton carved from stone in a glass case with a thread line hanging from its head. The death of the fish is both unremarkable and remarkable. Sotero asks the visitor to listen.

Cod have had it rough in the last century. The Grand Banks fisheries in North America collapsed after 1970 and by 1990, there was basically no fish left. There are fears that the Atlantic population is next with continual overfishing.

One of the cod in the aquarium at Ílhavo Maritime Museum

One of the cod in the aquarium at Ílhavo Maritime Museum

The story of the passenger pigeon should remind us that even very abundant animals can disappear–at least that’s the hope of projects like Fold the Flock which is trying to build an origami flock of passenger pigeons and the Project Passenger Pigeon film From Billions to None. The same was true of the European beaver, which nearly joined the extinct animals list. The thing is that people often don’t notice the population decline, or by the time they do so, it is too late. We’ve noticed that cod are in trouble, but will we do anything about it?

One of the modern art works in the museum shows a ‘King Cod’ covered in Euro coins painted gold.

Cod swim in the North Atlantic so we can think that they belong to Norway and the other nations in those waters. But during my two weeks in Portugal, I say cod also belong to Portugal. They are so integral to Portuguese cuisine and tradition that to lose cod would mean to lose something central. Although there aren’t many Portuguese who sail in cod fishing fleets anymore, cod processing is still a key economic activity. What happens to cod matters to Portugal, but because the relationship with the fish is consumptive, reigning in that consumption may prove too difficult. That may be why people have tended to consume fish stocks to collapse then turn to another fish species to replace it.

For now, Cod is King. But will the refrain come soon? ‘The King is dead. Long live the King.’


— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

CfP: History and Climate Change – What Have We Learnt

<from the ICHM listserve> CfP: History and Climate Change: What have we learnt? We are currently inviting 20-25 minute contributions from scholars, activists, policy-makers and members of the public to explore two related questions. Firstly, to think about how climate concern is forcing us to rethink our understandings of history, often in quite radical ways. […]

— Climate History Network

The RCC at the Second World Congress of Environmental History

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

Anthropocene Milestones: Illustrating the Path to the Age of Humans

Environment & Society Portal

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

ICEHO Bulletin 1

The first ICEHO Bulletin is now available. It includes a summary of the World Congress as well as highlights from ICEHO member organizations.

— International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations

ESEH Conference: Deadline October 1, 2014

Logo ESEH big 400x252




The European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) is pleased to invite proposals for sessions, individual papers, roundtables, posters and other, more experimental forms of communicating scholarship for its 2015 biennial conference. The University of Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines will be hosting the conference in Versailles, France, from 30 June to 3 July 2015.

DEADLINE October 1, 2014

— Ruedha