When You Look into the Eyes of an Endangered Species, See Yourself

An exhibit on extinction at the Harvard Museum of Natural History pulls visitors into an immersive, reflective experience.

December 22, 2016

Jaguar, Panthera onca - Near Threatened; Courtesy Christina Seely

When someone close to us dies, grief is a normal, expected reaction. But what about when a species disappears? The loss of biodiversity is often presented with cold, hard facts and figures, and an explicit opportunity to mourn an extinction is rare. But a new exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History encourages visitors to give in to their emotions over the losses of those with whom we’ve shared the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

“Climate change and extinction are such monsters as conceptual ideas…so big we don’t want to feel it,” says artist Christina Seely, who wants to make sure people really do feel it. “This space that I’ve created is meant to be a sort of church to these animals.”

“Next of Kin: Seeing Extinction Through the Artist’s Lens” features photography, audio, lighting effects, museum specimens, and poetry. Seely collaborated with the Canary Project, an initiative by artists Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, to create an exhibit that blurs the line between art and science and fosters personal connections to imperiled wildlife.

Species Impact - Tropics/Arctic; daguerreotypes; Courtesy Christina Seely

Growing up in California, Seely made frequent visits to Yosemite National Park, where she observed the complex ways in which people interact with the landscape. Now, as a professional photographer and assistant professor of studio art at Dartmouth College, she explores that relationship through her art.

Two sets of portraits are at the heart of the exhibit: one featuring taxidermied museum specimens of endangered species; the other displaying endangered species in their natural habitat. In both series, the viewer plays a key role, one beyond that of a passive observer. The surface of the images is mirror-like, drawing the viewer in to engage with the subject. In a sense, the viewer becomes the subject.

Like any great memorial, “Next of Kin” is also a celebration of life. Seely worked with curators from the mammalogy and ornithology departments at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology to pepper the exhibit with specimens—such as a tusk of the elusive narwhal and a skeleton of a 500-pound moa—to help tell the story of nature’s infinite variation.

Seely hopes that the exhibit stirs a sense of empathy that doesn’t dissipate at the Exit sign, but instead sparks further personal action. For visitors who emerge from “Next of Kin” wanting to learn more, they’ll be in the right place—smack in the middle of a science museum.

Sable Antelope, Hippotragus niger - Vulnerable; Courtesy Christina Seely

Next of Kin: Seeing Extinction Through the Artist’s Lens” is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through June 4, 2017.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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