Extinct – A New Exhibition At The Manx Museum

Written by Laura McCoy, Curator of Natural History for Manx National Heritage.

Wednesday the 8th September saw the opening of the new temporary exhibition ‘Extinct’ at the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man, in partnership with Manx Wildlife Trust, which also coincided with the launch of the Red Data bird list published by Manx BirdLife. There are many species that have become locally extinct on the Isle of Man, particularly birds and plants, and this trend is not slowing down, with the Yellowhammer, once one of our most ubiquitous farmland birds, disappearing from our Island only in 2019. Some may ask how these absences impact our day-to-day lives, why this matters, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, the complexity and variety of our environment is what sustains us; if you knock out enough of the bricks the wall will come tumbling down. These disappearances are symptomatic of a grave state of affairs and islands are particularly sensitive to changes in management and climate. The more protected and supported our environment is, the better it is able to withstand and buffer us from the global shifts that are to come.

When Manx Wildlife Trust came to Manx National Heritage with the idea of this exhibition we were fully on board; learning about these stories of the Isle of Man’s countryside has been a journey, sometimes an upsetting one, but it has also been a call to arms. I had no idea that currently 29% of our current resident bird species, never mind the ones that are already gone, are red listed, and 41% are amber. An estimated forty five species of plant are extinct, seventy seven are red listed. We are still trying to compile what invertebrates and fungi we have, never mind assess what has been lost. 

It is not all doom and gloom; there are stories of hope, such as the success we have achieved with the Manx Shearwater, to represent what we are capable of if we put our minds to something and make the changes necessary to consider the organisms we share our world with.  We had over 600 breeding pairs counted by our bird observatory wardens this year on the islet of the Calf of Man, when historically numbers had reduced to zero. There are now around twenty five pairs of Peregrine Falcon, which had disappeared due to DDT; the Island is home to 28% of the Chough population for the British Isles (133 pairs).

This installation in the Cabinet of Curiosities and the Grand Salon is symbolic of MNH’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Manx Wildlife Trust and our mutual commitment to protect and campaign for our Island’s wildlife. We have used images from our archives, excerpts from recent surveys, data from different organisations and departments, beautiful photos from very talented wildlife photographers and created a soundscape of the lost bird calls of our landscape. The specimens on display are all from the Island and highlight why it is important that we hold these historic collections; they are proof of what was here and when, can be used to educate people about what they can no longer see living and perhaps illicit a spark of passion so that we protect what we still have.

I was fortunate to have an intern with me for eight weeks leading up to the exhibition and some of her time was spent cleaning and getting specimens ready to go on display; many had been in storage for decades. My regular volunteer that works with the herbarium went through and extracted any of the extinct plant species we could find and our archives conservator helped with photography – it has been a team effort.

At the 2019 NatSCA conference in Dublin I attended a talk by Dean Veall, now Deputy Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath, and one of the statements in his lecture that stuck with me was, “sh*t on a tray just won’t cut it anymore,” and he’s right. Museums are the perfect place to campaign, ask difficult questions, be a platform and use our reputations for integrity and truth to engineer change. We have objects and stories within our collections that illustrate and provide evidence for many uncomfortable conversations, and what I love about this sector and all my inspirational peers is that we are doing this head on.

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