Naming Extinction

Dolly Jørgensen

We are currently living through a major extinction event with vast numbers of species across the planet rapidly becoming extinct because of human actions, from climate change to habitat conversion to pollution. In this presentation, I discuss the possibilities for communicating the speed and scale of extinction through museum and monument exhibition. Focusing on the naming of lost species, I discuss how lists, animal bodies, visuals, and personal stories can be deployed to tell extinction stories.

11 replies on “Naming Extinction”

How can we present in a meaningful way to the public the scale and speed at which climate change and other environmental changes are happening?

So much to think about here! I was recently at the Natural History Museum in London, and I saw an ivory-billed woodpecker specimen in the “endangered” display, although this bird is almost certainly extinct. I’m wondering about that moment when a specimen is moved from one section of the museum to another. Would this be a story that a museum might tell about extinction, i.e. the sombre reclassification of collection objects?

I really love the short story suggested in the title “The sombre reclassification of collections.”

I’m super curious about how these roll calls of species extinction in natural history museums especially are presented (or not) with accounts
of larger lifeworlds/assemblages/ecologies and how they are endangered extinct. Do any of the natural museum histories you have visited and/or work with trouble the reliance on the category species to didacticize extinction’s speed or scale?
I also have a comment on Maya Lin’s What Is Missing, a monument that I have been teaching and thinking with for some time now. When I dreamt up the My Climate Story project, it was very much inspired by that participatory monument which invited humans to talk about how they felt about the specific losses they were witnessing. I am curious thought about how you understand Lin’s insistence that it is “the last monument.” What’s that about?

This is fascinating work, Dolly! I’m really taken by the questions you pose about how to represent scale and speed. Speed does seem trickier to convey than scale. I wonder if you’ve noticed any affective trends in how museums exhibit loss, conduct role calls, and invite embodied participation from visitors. What emotions do the exhibits aim to elicit? Bethany–same question about “My Climate Story” (which I need to spend more time with soon). Lin’s comments are interestingly nostalgic (“my last memorial”), but she also insists on an “arc of hope” and (I argue in Resilience!) reinforces an affective hope/despair binary that her actual memorial complicates in interesting ways. It also makes me think about Heather Houser’s forthcoming book on Infowhelm, and how the kind of more personalized data-as-story we see in some of the roll calls and on the “What is Missing?” site might help combat that. Looking forward to chatting more!

Thank you for this contribution — I’m really taken by the framing of extinction as cultural heritage and look forward to following that project.

I’m curious about your answers to the questions above and also to an additional one I wanted to pose, about whether extinction and what we do not know about the complex interplays among variables that contribute to a flourishing or demise or resurgence or extinction. That sort of admiration of and pause before what is not known (or is known in local knowledge and not forms of institutionalized knowledge) is something I’ve found largely absent in museums of natural history, and it seems like that space of wonder, and the emotion of wonder, is one that is complex and invites reflection (perhaps instead of or in addition to grief or being overwhelmed and fearful). Do you see exhibits that awaken wonder at the interactions (multispecies, alluvial, geological, volcanic, etc) that give rise to life/living/death in any of the museums you’ve studied?

My thoughts listening to this presentation were along the lines of Bethany and Laura’s questions about the extent to which these representations of extinction attempt to evoke the ecological/relational worlds from which these species are now “missing.” Lin’s title “What is Missing” really evokes not just death and loss but absence — and I found myself wondering what a memorial would look like that focused primarily on the reconfigured environments where extinct species once were.

Thank you Dolly! I connect with your questions about speed and scale, and I think we need more artworks to address this topic from time time-based, experience-based aesthetic.

Such a great presentation to listen to in tandem with Amitav’s keynote! How to properly mourn what is being lost every day without verging into what Kyle Powys White terms “settler apocalyticism” which of course goes hand in hand with technosalvationist solutioneering. Thanks very much for your brilliant work on extinction, Dolly!

Dolly, I found this topic and presentation both fascinating and provocative. I especially appreciated the juxtaposition between Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial and these lists. Of course, the Vietnam War was ultimately finite for our own troops, so we can view such a list (which is powerfully emotional to view in person) and lament a senseless war. So it brought to mind a question about how visitors respond to these extinction lists. Could a list of all those species who’ve gone extinct in the distant past lead visitors to a kind of apathy about current and future extinctions–that is, the idea that extinction is simply natural, like death itself, and there’s no point in fighting it?