As people roam the city in search of the scattered herd of 90 animals in this summer’s Cows About Cambridge trail, they may spot that there is a notable odd-one-out: one of the sculptures is not a cow. If you follow the trail to the Museum of Zoology, you will find one of the world’s most iconic mammals there to greet you instead: our “cow” is a rhino. The question we want people to ask themselves is, why?
The Red Poll cows that form the inspiration for Cows About Cambridge are a wonderful part of the city’s heritage, and when we were invited to take part in the trail we thought about what we could do to make the most of the opportunity – to put a Museum of Zoology twist on it. The Museum’s mission is to promote understanding and appreciation of animal life in the past, present and future of our planet. Art projects like this one can be a great way to start conversations about our role in shaping that future.
Our sculpture is named The Moostery Sculpture. Until now, we haven’t revealed our unique status on the trail – leaving its identity as a rhino as a surprise.
Explaining the Moostery
Because of the role that we now know cows play in the climate emergency, through the methane that they produce, we thought that hosting a sculpture that isn’t a cow could spark discussions around this topic. Environmental messages can sometimes get lost in a sea of statistics, but I find this one truly shocking: of all the mammals alive today, only 4% are wild mammals. Humans make up 36%, but the majority – a staggering 60% – are farmed livestock, such as cows, sheep and pigs.
As a museum dedicated to engaging people with the wonders of the wild world, when we were offered the chance to have a surprise wild animal – one that we have a skeleton of in our galleries – we jumped at the chance.
With three of their five species considered Critically Endangered, rhinos are real emblems of the conservation movement. This choice felt appropriate because the Museum is part of Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, and we share our building with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). Much of the work that takes place here in the Museum, the Department and the CCI is thoroughly focussed on environmental conservation.
Using art to engage museum visitors
Our rhino has been painted by the artist Laura-Kate Chapman, with beautiful illustrations of animals that visitors can find in our galleries. In fact, several of the species depicted on the rhino can only be found in our museum and others like it: museums are the only remaining habitat of extinct species.
Laura-Kate has included our giant ground sloth, which at four tonnes was one of the largest land-mammals ever to walk the Earth, until they were hunted to extinction around 10,000 years ago. Ours is the only real skeleton of these Ice-Age giants on display in the UK. Elsewhere on the rhino is a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which were the largest living carnivorous marsupials until a government-sponsored bounty system drove them to extinction last century. The last known individual died in 1936. We have the real specimens of these animals in our galleries, along with thousands of others such as the dodo, arguably humanity’s most famous victim.
We firmly believe art can play a crucial role in engaging people with issues of global importance. Our Summer exhibition, Breaking Point: Fragility in clay and nature is another case in point. A series of installations by three ceramic artists, Elspeth Owen, Jayne Ivimey, and Mella Shaw, this exhibition uses the fragility of fired clay to explore ecological decline, ecosystem collapse and environmental change.
Using the past to inspire the present
But beyond the public galleries, many people don’t realise what is happening behind the scenes in museums. We have one of the UK’s most significant natural history collections at the Museum of Zoology. Our two million specimens are vital for tackling some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, such as biodiversity loss and climate change. Large natural history museums are the best source of evidence on Earth for investigating, and mitigating, these issues.
Museums have a very long memory. Dating back well over two centuries, our collections provide an incredible record of how animal life has changed over a period which has seen unprecedented change. Because collectors typically recorded exactly where and when they found a specimen, we can reconstruct past ecosystems, track how populations have changed, and, crucially, use that information to guide modern-day conservation.
For example, one group of researchers in the Museum of Zoology is studying a collection of thousands of butterflies and beetles collected in Cambridgeshire at the start of the nineteenth century – before the last of the Fens were drained and before the Industrial Revolution – and comparing it to what species live in the region now. They then collaborate with conservationists from the Wildlife Trusts to inform how to restore and conserve threatened habitats in East Anglia. Elsewhere in the Museum, palaeontologists are asking how the study of fossils can inform us how major ecological processes work, which is a huge part of successful conservation efforts.
As well as this vital work going on in the Museum, Fauna & Flora International, one of our neighbours in the CCI, established the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2004. This is home to the largest population of black rhinos in East Africa, and is now a model for combining conservation with farming, not only securing habitat for endangered species, but also supporting the people living around its borders, with jobs, education and healthcare.
Using the present to inspire the future
It is our hope that when visitors follow the trail to the Museum of Zoology, meet our rhino, see our Breaking Point exhibition and wander our galleries, not only will they enjoy the sense of exploration that the city-wide trail inspires, but also they might choose to explore some the of the deeper conversations that art and natural history can spark.
Author and zoologist Jack Ashby is Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.