Salmon: Slippery Objects

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In my analysis of biodiversity as presented across several museums, a project undertaken for STS 502, I concluded that museums tackle biodiversity in a variety of ways. Many do not define biodiversity on their website even though the term is not widely used or understood by the public, they tend to not link conservation and biodiversity, and they value biodiversity for a variety of different reasons (aesthetic, ethical, etc).

I recommended that museums explicitly link conservation issues and biodiversity, emphasize that biodiversity is not only about individual species, and carefully consider the values they espouse.

I propose an exhibit around the concept of “salmon” as it intersects with concerns of biodiversity and explain how it could be hosted at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, BC, whose motto is “A world where biodiversity is better understood, valued, and protected.” My proposal addresses some of the areas of concern I have analyzed.

My paper  for STS 502 “What We Talk About When We Talk About Biodiversity,” which informed this exhibit, can be read in full here.

The Victorian museum

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum functions in many ways like a modern cabinet of curiosities, its “boxes” containing specimens making almost literal the connection between the Victorian tradition of exhibiting specimens and the modern natural history museum.

The importance of museum “objects” diminished in the 20th century as biology moved into the field of genetics: from science that could be viewed with the naked eye to science that necessitated a microscope. The Beaty seems to share many of the characteristics of 19th century museums, in its reliance on on an object-based epistemology, emphasizing direct observation and the notion that objects speak for themselves. The Beaty’s blue whale skeleton, for example, is described as “a magnificent specimen that illustrates the interconnectedness of all living things.”

Despite a move in the 1960s towards science museums which showcased more interactive content and did not rely on taxidermied specimens, many natural history museums today still default to the “cabinet of curiosities” mode of creating exhibits. The American Museum of Natural History utilizes this strategy, though not in their Hall of Biodiversity, which is meant to provide a more immersive experience. Here, biodiversity is portrayed through a 2,500 square-foot diorama of a rain forest, a timeline of extinctions, video installations, and the like. The American Museum of Natural History also discusses the degradation of the environment by humans and paths to preservation.

The Hall of Biodiversity thus breaks the mold of “things in a box,” with specimens hanging from the ceilings and the use of a diorama people can walk through. It offers a more expansive vision of biodiversity which ties together animals, plants, humans, and habitats. The Biomuseo of Panama also exhibits a vision of biodiversity which distances itself from the Victorian and tends to employ abstract representation to showcase and define biodiversity.