Oct. 23, 2017
Of all the objects on display in MSU’s Museum, perhaps none so remarkably combines “resonance” and “wonder” as the great brown bear, towering over all the other taxidermy specimens in the second floor’s Hall of Evolution and Adaptation. At 10 and a half feet tall, it ranks among the largest brown bear specimens on display in any museum.
During my first visit to the museum, as I rounded a line of cases, I actually jumped with shock as I unexpectedly saw the bear, rearing up on its hind legs, its claws extended outwards. It is a magnificent specimen, wonder-inducing in the most fundamental sense. Yet, it is also “resonant,” carefully placed in relationship to other mammal specimens to illustrate important points about natural selection and adaptation across the diverse, global web of life.
During my time on the job as MSU museum director, I’ve come to learn a bit about this striking specimen from colleagues and visitors. It was shot by big game hunter Jens Touborg along the Aniakchak Bay on the Alaskan peninsula in 1958 and donated to the museum by Touborg in 1983.
Speculatively, our powerful emotional response to the great MSU bear may emerge out of ancient cultural history, which stretches back to the upper Paleolithic, long before the rise of agriculture. We too may recognize this awe-inspiring standing figure as a momentous “Fallen King,” who evokes in each of us the age-old mystery of loss and miraculous rebirth.
Perhaps it is for this reason that so many parents, who recall first seeing the bear as children, love showing it to their own young children. It reminds us that although mourning and loss come to us all, something profound and deeply meaningful endures across the generations. Might it be that this capacity for awe, our ability to experience deep wonder in the face of mystery, is the greatest gift we can present our children and our posterity?
For all these deep continuities across the epochs, “The Bear” is also a powerful reminder of how museums, including this one, have altered over the past 60 years. The MSU Museum was intertwined long ago with the “Polar Explorer Club,” through which big game hunters shot significant mammals around the world and donated their taxidermy specimens to the museum for our collections.
Our ethical understanding of museum collecting and environmental stewardship has changed dramatically across the decades. Today, many museum visitors raise concerns about the appropriateness of displaying taxidermy-mounted specimens, especially of endangered and charismatic megafauna.
These displays, they caution, might promote unsustainable environmental practices or reproduce older colonial assumptions about the rights of people of European descent to dominate peoples and ecosystems around our fragile planet.
We are increasingly mindful of the importance of engaging local Native American/First Nation communities, here in Michigan and on the Alaskan peninsula, in discussions about how best to honor this great, fallen creature, who is understood a sacred being in many indigenous cultures. Members of the Bear Clan, in particular, may have important guidance for us as we reflect on how to move forward in future displays.
These are challenging and difficult questions, which we encourage our visitors, young and old, to ponder and converse about. In the 21st century, the job of museums is not to tell people what to think but to give us all tools to debate one another with rationality and civility, and to reach, in time, our own independent conclusions about the universe and our proper place within it.
An important museum object, such as the MSU Museum’s Bear, does not have a singular meaning. It does not communicate a clear, simple message. Rather, it evokes a host of unresolved questions, emerging out of thousands of years of environmental and cultural history. Great museum objects, especially those that trigger both resonance and wonder, make us think, and feel, in unexpected ways, and help us in the great work of becoming more than we thought we were. And that is why, in an era in which our society is so bitterly polarized over difficult questions in science and culture, we need museums more than ever.