Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still Life: BYU's Rhino and the Museum Specimen Controversy

What belongs in a museum? And how far should museums go to get those things?

These are questions that Utahans have been asking themselves this week, as controversy rages over a rhinoceros soon to be on display at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University in Provo. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Bean officials recruited museum benefactor Fred Morris of Draper last year to hunt a rhino at South Africa's Mkuze National Park. The park sells the rights to hunt excess rhinos to finance its conservation efforts, officials said....The Bean's plan is to mount the rhino skin on an artificial form as part of an ongoing taxidermy exhibit at the museum through January and later add the mount to a waterhole diorama. In that exhibit, the rhino would join an elephant that was also obtained by a modern hunter."
Angry words have been flying ever since news of the rhino's hunt hit the public. "If the private university wants stuffed animals in its museum, it should display Teddy bears," said one commentator. "It's education and conservation in its most lifeless form," railed another.

Representatives from the Bean Museum argue that the rhino was killed legally and in line with good management practices.
"Our only intent has been to use it as an educational mechanism for promoting public appreciation of the conservation of these magnificent animals," a Museum spokesman told the Tribune.

So what is the place of dead animals in museum displays? As one of the angry commentators pointed out, the Utah Museum of Natural History has "a collection of moldering mule deer, a spray of birds from Farmington Bay and a scene of Boulder Mountain carnivores, including a bear and bobcat" on display in our Biology Hall. We also have many more specimens that we use in teaching and for research. Are these valuable? Ethical? [author's note: our mule deer aren't moldering, by the way.]

One major difference between UMNH's specimens and the BYU rhino is that most of those on display here were killed or donated more than 30 years ago. We are still adding animals to our collection, but only for research and education purposes, and as UMNH Director Sarah George told the Tribune, "We focus on Utah."

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of displaying dead animals at all. Here at UMNH, we've made the decision that it's worth it. The unique opportunity for observing a real specimen that you might not otherwise see can be a valuable experience. And as for the rhino? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

Tell us your opinion on displaying animal specimens. What kind of experiences have you had with them?