Wednesday, 2 November 2016




One of the most popular posts from the 2015 fall semester was Amanda Barbosa's look at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. The museum uses cats to control the rodent population aboard the CSS Acadia, one of their permanent exhibits. They call them RCOs, or Rodent Control Officers.

Aside from how adorable it is to employ cats as part of a collections management team, it got me thinking about the role of live animals in museums. The Maritime Museum uses animals as mascots, with the practical benefit of its cats controlling the pest population and garnering media attention. The ROM has the Hands-on Biodiveristy Gallery, where visitors can see honey bees, mossy frogs, axolotls, fish, and a variety of insects. As a long-time volunteer in the Hands-on Gallery, I can personally vouch for how effective it is to use animals as a way to connect with visitors and bridge the gap between their personal knowledge and the message that the museum is trying to convey.

Me with the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
The Natural History Museum in Los Angeles County has adopted a similar strategy. They are currently working on a live animal program about vertebrates (animals with backbones) that will focus, among other things, on educating people about misunderstood animals and hopefully leave guests with a greater understanding of the natural world.

In fact, natural history and science museums all over the world feature live animals, and have for almost a century, so why are so many people surprised to find out that they can visit animals in many different cultural institutions aside from zoos? I can't count how many times I've explained to guests at the ROM that we have live specimens only to hear: "Really? At a museum?" Some people don't even believe me right away.

There's an odd disconnect between live museum specimens and zoos, especially the nature of the ethical debates surrounding them. Sure, many people have issues with institutionalizing animals in any context, even deceased animals that have been preserved by taxidermists. There are many moving and passionate articles and books on both sides of the debate, and most major museums will have an official policy on human and animal remains. However, the specific issue of live specimens in museums that primarily feature inanimate material culture has not permeated our social consciousness in the same way that zoos have.

Most people already have informed opinions on how they feel about zoos, but in my experience the same cannot be said for how they feel about the museum's role in researching and studying live animals. Personally, I have nothing against humane and well-run zoos, but I still believe that museums use animals in a way that is contextually and fundamentally different from the way that zoos use them, and really cannot be compared on a deeper level. Do most people have the same feeling that I do? Are natural history museums so far removed from zoos that it justifies how differently we view and judge them?

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