The automatic assumption that most will naturally jump to is that this will be an exhibition about man’s impact on the world from eating all the Moa in New Zealand to inadvertently spreading the chytrid fungus which is ravaging amphibian species worldwide. And there are plenty of exhibits on this theme, such as a stuffed Dodo and the impressive antlers of the now extinct Irish Elk. The most impressive is a tank full of Mexican pupfish which no longer exist in the wild due to loss of habitat but are being bred at London Zoo and are thriving.
Where this exhibition distinguishes itself is in asking some challenging questions. There has always been a ‘background’ extinction rate so it’s not certain that humanity is to blame for all extinctions. So, are some animals destined to die off and we’ve simply sped up the process? Should we only focus our attention on the larger and more eye-catching animals? Extinction is seen as a negative word but it’s part of the cycle of nature – without the death of the dinosaurs we wouldn’t have come to dominate the Earth and surely the eradication of the smallpox virus was a good thing.
There is a strong conservational message here but it stimulates debate rather than telling you what to think. It’s fascinating but quite heavy going so there’s a game to keep children occupied, controlling a species that’s trying to avoid extinction.
The final sobering thought visitors will be left with is that several species of early hominids were evolutionary dead ends and went extinct, so it’s presumptuous to assume humanity will always prevail. This is a cerebral exhibition that will get you thinking about extinction in a new and better informed light.
Extinction: Not the end of the world? is on at the Natural History Museum until 8 September. Tickets are £9, concessions available.