Moving Animals

In March, Vanessa Bateman presented new research at the workshop “From Passive Livestock to Untamed Beings Reanimating Animals in the History of Technology” at Technical University Berlin, organized by Christian Zumbrägel. Her paper is based on archival research from last year at the University of Minnesota and the Bell Museum.

“Just Passing Through: Mediating Migration at the Natural History Museum”

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the James Ford Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota produced over a dozen habitat dioramas at the height of their popularity in American natural history museums. Rather than creating a panoramic tour of a faraway continent, or family portraits of charismatic mammals associated with big game hunting that became iconic of these forms of animal tableaux, the Bell Museum chose to focus on diverse habitats and wildlife of Minnesota before “ax and plow.” Therefore, the Bell Museum dioramas were intended to function as touchstones on which visitors could visually measure human impact on nature so close to home.

At the border of central Canada and the western Great Lakes, Minnesota is an important feeding and nesting ground in the Mississippi Flyaway, a bird migration route taken by about 40% of North American waterfowl and shorebirds who migrate, with some species traveling as far north as the Arctic and as south as Central and South America. To historicize the seasonal migration of animals in the twentieth century, this paper uses four dioramas at the Bell Museum as a case study to demonstrate how this visual archive can contribute to animal and environmental histories. These 1940s dioramas offer windows onto birds “just passing through” Minnesota with scenes of swans, geese, cranes, pipers, and plovers, including several species who were or are endangered. Just as the species represented in painting and taxidermy are not static objects—neither are these dioramas. By depicting real locations, the initial conservationist agenda behind these dioramas has continued today, as these dioramas illustrate anthropogenic environmental change and scientific research to museum visitors. The Tundra Swans diorama, for example, is based on a location that is now the site of the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport where the animals no longer visit on their annual migration, while another diorama location is now a protected scientific and natural area. While the seasonal migration of animals are mostly understood as part of a natural order of things, the Bell Museum dioramas reveal unfolding and unstable human-animal relations.

Panel: Technologies between Animals and Humans
Chair: Dorothee Brantz