The last time I wrote for Artists and Climate Change, my art practice was starting to expand. I had already spent five years raising awareness about climate change through The Apocalypse Project, and I had been given many opportunities by institutions to work with local communities and ecosystems. My experiences, especially in Southeast Asia, Colombia, Uganda, and the Amazon forest, made it clear that researchers were right: the people most affected by climate change are the ones who have contributed the least to it. As an artist, I had the opportunity to develop relationships and collaborate with people whom I had previously only read about, and to bring their stories to a wider audience. Furthermore, it became possible for me to connect the Global North and the Global South through these pieces.
For a few months this year, I was given the chance to pursue a new set of questions that have been haunting me for some time. How does unequal access to science lead to different beliefs? Why do so many people think that scientists are frauds? What can art do to help restore the public’s faith in science? A residency supported by the Austrian Federal Chancellery and KulturKontakt Austria was where I could finally start to answer these questions through the creation of a new body of work called Wild Science. I couldn’t think of a better place to start than Vienna, a city whose rich history of science can make many a science denialist pause.
To a visitor like myself, each century-plus-old museum seems like an antidote to the many ailments that plague modern society. Are you a flat earther? The Globe Museum should fix that. Do you doubt climate change? Come visit the animals in the Tiergarten! So many places in Vienna are perfectly fit to handle every sort of denial or confusion. During my residency, it was a joy to go through all of these institutions – sometimes more than once as many things needed a second, third, or even fourth look – and be inspired by the discoveries of the past and how knowledge needs revisiting.
Among the many research institutions I came to know in Austria’s capital, one that was very comforting in the pursuit of my answers was the formidable Vienna Natural History Museum, which houses many important collections. To most visitors, natural history museums are little more than collections of jars filled with dead specimens – a kind of large cemetery. But I view them as dynamic spaces of research, citizen science, and interdisciplinary conversation. Unfortunately, for these museums and many other research institutions, the processes that create knowledge are often invisible to the public. In addition, researchers within these institutions may be too busy to know what their colleagues in other departments are doing.
I reached out to some departments at the Vienna Natural History Museum and I was lucky enough to be given access to their behind-the-scenes. Among them were the Department of Herpetology and the Department of Zoology.
In the Department of Herpetology, Dr. Silke Schweiger, Curator, and Mr. Georg Gassner, Collection Manager, showed me how they preserve their specimens. The reptiles are immersed in 75% ethanol (amphibians in 50%) and are kept in specially designed glass jars. (The ethanol is treated with methanol to make it undrinkable for tax reasons.) The covers of the jars are heated while solid bee resin is placed on the edges of the jar. The heated covers are placed on the jars, melting the bee resin. The glass is kept at room temperature overnight for the resin to set. Some specimens date as far back as the late 1800s. Some are “types” or “type specimens” – specimens whose characteristics define the species in official descriptions. The department holds almost 200,000 specimens.
In the Department of Zoology’s taxidermy lab, taxidermists Melina Franz and Mirjana Pavlovic showed me how they preserve skeletons and create stuffed animals. A tissue sample from a bird found by a local was removed and stored for eventual DNA sequencing. Afterwards came the meticulous removal of feathers and flesh. With each removal came more information on how the bird died – one of its legs was injured. Later, the skeleton is cleaned using special beetles that are employed to eat the remaining flesh of the animal, leaving nothing but bones. The taxidermy team, which is composed of mostly women, has won awards for their work. They make the specimens as lifelike as possible so that the public can emotionally connect to them, and so the resulting animals may appear frozen in mid-roar, flight, or chase, as though they might move when you blink.
This has been one of my most productive residencies. It has been fascinating to see researchers preserve specimens which may disappear in the future because of climate change. To me, our changing world amplifies the role of natural history museums. As the planet heats up, the existence of many species becomes more precarious and makes preservation of these animals more important.
More than cemeteries of dead plants and animals, natural history museums are sentinels of biodiversity. Thanks to them, humanity might learn to conserve these species and strengthen our relationship with nature before it’s too late. In addition, for people to trust science, they must get to know what scientists do. As this project progresses over time, I look forward to highlighting more of these methods and bringing science out of its ivory towers and into public awareness.
Are you a researcher who wants to share your process? Get in touch at email@example.com. I’d love to talk to you!
This project was generously supported by the Austrian Federal Chancellery / Bundeskanzleramt Austria and KulturKontakt Austria. Thank you to Dr. Silke Schweiger, Curator and Mr. Georg Gassner, Collection Manager of the Department of Herpetology; and Ms. Melina Franz and Ms. Mirjana Pavlovic, 1st Zoological Department, Natural History Museum, Vienna.
(Top image: The People’s Cabinet of Curiosities – an installation of specimens picked up during hikes in Vienna, donated by the Department of Herpetology of the Vienna Natural History Museum, or by friends.)
Catherine Sarah Young is a Chinese-Filipina artist, designer, and writer born in Manila. She creates works that investigate nature, our role in nature, and the tensions between nature and technology, exploring themes such as climate change and sustainability, science policy and citizen science, feminism and participatory art, among others. Bodies of work include The Apocalypse Project (climate change awareness), Future Rx (sustainability), and Wild Science (knowledge and power). She has an international exhibition, residency, awards, fellowship, and collaboration profile most recently around Southeast Asia, Uganda, Austria, and the Amazon. She loves hiking, taekwondo, and writing science fiction. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.