The first two objects in Manchester Museum’s new exhibition Extinction or Survival? are a model of a dodo and a stuffed panda. One is extinct, of course. And the other has been brought back from the brink of extinction, thanks to the efforts of conservationists across the globe.

While we humans have obliterated numerous animals, birds and plants from existence, we have also done great things to save other species from extinction. So in its simplest form this exhibition presents a story about our interaction with the natural world.

But extinction and survival are not that straightforward. By showing us a range of specimens that have passed into extinction or have remained on the edge of endangerment, this exhibition seeks to show the audience that extinction is not a simple black and white, open and closed case.

There are many factors that contribute to the disappearance of a species from this planet. Our over-exploitation of the natural world, our obsession with hunting and the disruption we cause to natural habitats all play a role. But so do the natural ebbs and flows of the natural world, such as fluctuations in climate change (and we all now understand our role in pushing that to the limits). This means it is often difficult to allocate blame for why a species might have become extinct.

Just as the contributing factors to extinction are multifaceted and complex, so are the means by which we humans seek to help certain species to survive. Conservation programmes are intensive and expensive. They require buy-in from multiple stakeholders and governments, as well as from you and me.

ibisThere is no one magic button we can press to remove an animal from danger, just as there is no one solution to homelessness, refugees or cancer. These complex phenomena require complex solutions.

So, Manchester Museum’s display contains some surprises. We all know about the dodo and the dinosaurs. But what about the extinct giant earwig? Or the passenger pigeon?

Seeing specimens of species which no longer exist (and about which most people know very little) stuffed and presented in glass museum cases is a rather humbling experience. And it’s a reminder of the importance of museum collections. Museums document the world around us, recording the stories of our life on Earth and enabling us to learn. If someone hadn’t collected an example of a passenger pigeon before it became extinct in 1914, its story may have slipped away, unknown and forgotten. But its presence in the museum is a reminder of something lost, something we can reflect on.

The exhibition asks us to reflect about what we, as visitors, can do to combat the threat of extinction. Of course, you could join a charity or donate some money to a conservation project. Or you could visit a zoo and support its conservation efforts.

Extinction or Survival? also suggests that it’s possible to make changes in our lives that will positively affect the biodiversity of the planet and our existence. For example, the way we treat local environments and the planet could have an impact on what survives and what doesn’t.

Extinction isn’t new. But we are at a point in the Earth’s history where, as a race, we are able to document the process of extinction and realise our own involvement in the story. Seeing this story told through museum objects – rather than on television or in a book – makes it all the more real and all the more powerful.

It’s humbling to think that of all the species that have ever lived on this planet, only 0.1 per cent of them are alive today. Are we humans the agents of extinction (like the asteroid)? Could we one day be the victim of extinction (like the dinosaurs)? Or are we perhaps both?

By Steve Slack


thumbnail_elepExtinction or Survival? is at Manchester Museum until April 20, 2017. Admission is free.