Door 12: Strongly biased representation of animal biodiversity in exhibitions

This year the museum has started to develop a new exhibition for our zoological museum. The former “Tree of Life” exhibition is now part of the new exhibitions in the geological museum. Accordingly, this hall is unused now and shall host a new exhibition about animal biodiversity. I was invited to participate in the working group developing this new exhibition representing the invertebrate biodiversity. Besides four representatives from the outreach department, two other scientists of NHM (Arild and Kjetil) represent the vertebrate diversity in the group. As part of the working group, we visited the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands, to get inspirations and talk with the outreach department there. Moreover, we also visited Micropia and Groote Museum in Amsterdam. Additionally, as it is the first time I am personally involved in an exhibition development and I learned a lot in addition to what I already learned from Anne Birkeland in our course on Zoological Systematic, where she teaches a few classes on exhibition development. Finally, with this background I also visited the Natural History exhibitions of the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town. Here, I would like to give a few personal reflection on exhibitions about animal biodiversity.

The pictures shows a part of the web presentation
of the “Life” exhibition of Naturalis as of December 9th 2023.

Both Natural History museums have exhibition dedicated to animal biodiversity. As one can see on the picture above and in the featured image showing the one of the mammal halls in the Iziko Museum, such exhibitions are always dominated by the display of vertebrates. The old and new “Tree of Life” exhibition of our museum had and have the same strong bias towards vertebrates. One reason for this is that vertebrates are usually the largest display items in such exhibitions and will be more dominating just due to size. However, also the number of display items is most often much more biased towards vertebrates. The explanation relating to vertebrates are usually more detailed and the taxonomy of vertebrates is shown in much more detail than the one of invertebrates. These are often deliberate decision in the development of the exhibition based on the arguments related to expectation by the visitors, familiarity of the visitors with these animals, aesthetic reasons and the easiness to show large animals in contrast to small ones. These are all valid and also very practical arguments, but on the other hand the function of a museum is also to educate the general public about the unknown and, especially in these times, about scientific facts. In the light of the biodiversity crisis and the limited resources we have for conservation issues (see also Pia’s and Lutz’s blog entry as well as this comment by Frank Rossavik in Aftenposten), in my opinion it is more important than ever that musea take up their educational role with respect to the scientific facts about animal biodiversity and do not enforce perceived biases about animal biodiversity based on familiarity, beauty/disgust and value to society or business.

Picture of the invertebrate exhibit of South Africa

Invertebrates are often displayed in small display casts as shown in the picture above. Again this is nothing special to these exhibitions, but a standard scheme. My guess is that invertebrates usually make up less than 10% of exhibitions presenting animal biodiversity (if not much less). However, if we look on the diversity of species across the animal tree of life, we find that it is dominated by invertebrates in all habitats on Earth. For example, given the report by Elven & Søli (2020) in Norway 98% of all species are invertebrates and only 2% are vertebrates. Hence, invertebrates occur 49 times more often than vertebrates. By far the largest invertebrate group are the arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders and alike) with 30567 of 40999 Norwegian species and they might bias this estimate. However, even if we take arthropods out of this calculation completely, 91% of all species are invertebrates (without arthropods) and 9% are vertebrates. Even in this case, there are 10 times more invertebrate species. Hence, exhibitions dominated by vertebrates do not really show animal biodiversity, but are actually a misrepresentation of biodiversity.

The Linnean system of animals comprises 31 phyla and you know what vertebrates are not one of them. Vertebrates are a subgroup of Chordata, which also includes for example tunicates. If one also looks a bit more on the actual numbers of the more familiar vertebrate groups, there are 507 birds, 96 mammals and 318 bony fishes in Norway. However, chordates without vertebrates with 107 species (mostly tunicates) and echinoderms (sea urchins, sea stars and alike) with 164 have more species in Norway than mammals. Bryozoans (moss animals) with 371, poriferans (sponges) with 450 and tardigrades (water bears) with 454 have more than bony fishes. Finally, rotifers (wheel animals) with 540, cnidarians (jellyfishes, corals and alike) with 662, platyhelminthes (flatworms) with 726, mollusks with 1075, annelids (ringed worms) with 1522 and nematods (roundworms) with 3000 species have more than even the birds. There are, for example, more species of flies and alike (8088), of bees, wasps, and alike (7800), of beetles (3800), of spiders and alike (2733), of butterflies (2360), and of malacostracan crustaceans (1265) in Norway than vertebrate species altogether (988).

Also considering different habitats, vertebrates are only 5% of the animal biodiversity in the sea, 3% on land and 2% in the lakes and rivers. Moreover, while we have some knowledge about 95% of the vertebrate species, this is the case for only 79% of the arthropod species and for 54% of the non-arthropod invertebrate species. Accordingly, our largest knowledge gaps exists for invertebrate species, but the absolute majority of attention, conservation tasks and research is tailored towards vertebrate species.

Independent on how we look at it, invertebrates are clearly a more dominant part of animal biodiversity and exhibit the largest knowledge gaps about almost everything concerning their biology. In addition, many exhibitions as they are now just solidify the general misconception that animals are typically something like a mammal or at least a vertebrate, while it is quite the opposite and animals are more like an invertebrate, especially an insect. However, we will only care about and protect what we know and whose value we appreciate. Accordingly, museum exhibitions can play an important role in educating the general public about the true nature of animal biodiversity and weaken common misconceptions instead of feeding them.

Picture of the Jelly fish exhibition at Iziko museum.

How should an exhibition about animal biodiversity look?

I do not have a final answer to this as it clearly needs a balance between different aspects. An exhibition must be appealing to the visitors and provide them also with aspects they are familiar with. This helps to get the visitors engaged in the exhibition. However, this engagement should be used as a starting and leverage point to educate the general public about the true animal biodiversity. Invertebrates should not be treated neglectfully, but as the highlight of the exhibition advocating their importance.

Considering the exhibitions, I have seen this year, what seem to have worked best in this respect are exhibitions with a clear topic and which have a narrative. Examples of these are the “Jelly world” at the Iziko museum or “Seduction” at Naturalis. Both had a very strong invertebrate focus in them. They were also very popular with the general public while I was there (see picture above). On the other hand, comparing these latter two exhibitions, the first one worked best as it did not overload the visitors with information and display items. As much I liked the “Seduction” exhibition during the visit, in retrospect I remember only very little of it as one was in the end just overwhelmed with information and visual impressions. Hence, some times less can be more in the long run.

Elven, H. and G. Søli, Kunnskapsstatus for artsmangfoldet i Norge 2020. Utredning for Artsdatabanken 1/2021. 2021, Artsdatabanken: Norge. p. 117

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