Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Museum Mules

The American Museum of Agriculture, a new museum under construction in Lubbock, Texas, recently purchased and euthanized two mules in order to mount their hides for use in a new exhibit.

The incident has gotten a fair amount of play in the press recently - Google "mules museum" and after a link to the American Mule Museum - which sounds like a cool project - just about the only results are negative news articles about the Lubbock museum.

The furor seems to have been started when the museum itself issued a press release on September 17 stating that it had purchased two mules - aged 28 and 32 - either directly from their owner or through the intermediary of a livestock dealer. The animals were no longer suitable for work and would have been transported to Mexico to be slaughtered for their meat.

The museum has been working with exhibit developer Museum Arts in Dallas, TX to create new galleries and dioramas, including one showing the McCormick Reaper (presumably) being pulled by two mules. Phil Paramore of Museum Arts stated that the exhibit's authenticity absolutely depended on presenting stuffed, rather than fiberglass, mules: "The reason that you use a real animal is to most accurately show the way the activity was done at the time. A fiberglass replica just doesn’t convey the same message."

This has gone over about as well as one would expect. An equine rights advocate named Elaine Nash started a campaign to save the mules, based on conflicting reports about the scheduled date of their euthanization, and a Lubbock area rescue named Ranch Hand Rescue started an online petition to do the same.

Nash told newspapers, in response to the museum's statement that they saved the animals from inhumane slaughter methods, "All they saved the mules from was a nice rescue home grazing under an apple tree — loved and petted and given treats … they could have had a wonderful life."

I think there have been a few major missteps in this whole situation that are going to haunt this museum for some time.

First: why the press release? It starts off reading like a triumphal announcement of future quality, and then degenerates into a defensive morass. Was the museum being threatened with exposure? Were they trying to be up front and transparent about the creation of their exhibit? Were they genuinely proud that they had saved these animals from slaughter? Did they have any idea of the anger the press release would invoke? Why not just stick with reporting on the exciting new exhibits?

Second: saying "they should have been rescued!" is a simplistic analysis. As the recession grinds on, thousands of horses have been neglected or abandoned, and every horse rescue in America is bursting at the seams. If they hadn't suddenly become famous, these two mules would not even have been a blip on the radar of the lucrative business of hauling horses across the border for slaughter. (Slaughter in the United States was abolished several years ago, which has led to only a small decrease in the numbers of horses meeting that end, and means that all horse slaughter now takes place in other countries, beyond the USDA's sphere of influence.)

If the mules genuinely were aged, no longer comfortable in work, and their owner would have trucked them to slaughter, then humane, veterinary euthanasia may have been a blessing for them. It's possible they were in chronic pain after a lifetime of hard work, and would not have been comfortable or happy in prolonged lives.  They would not have whiled away their hours in a field eating apples and adored by small children. Many would argue that responsible rescues should devote time and resources to animals that can have a second chance. These mules would have faced an uphill battle to be placed with an owner who could afford to keep two non-working animals.

Third, and most difficult to get at, is Paramore's claim that the exhibit would have suffered in impact with fiberglass reproductions of mules. I'm trying to think if I've ever seen another museum exhibit in which mounted & stuffed animals - of any species - were used as supporting evidence. Generally, animals displayed in that manner are the provenance of natural history museums. I know of a few prominent stuffed horses in museums - Winchester, Comanche, and Misty all come to mind - but all were famous in their own right and died natural deaths. Their identity as witnesses to history is the source of authenticity in their exhibits.

We talk a lot in museums about the power of objects. We argue that the real thing, the actual physical historical object, is the draw. For all that there are some excellent discussions to be had about the educational uses of reproductions, awe is usually reserved for the actual thing itself. Does that awe extend to the more ancillary pieces of an exhibit? Would I be less awed by an original McCormick Reaper if it were pulled by fiberglass mules? To use a comparison: am I less awed by equestrian armor at the Higgins Armory because it is displayed on a fiberglass horse?

I really don't think so. I believe the museum erred in taking Mr. Paramore's advice. I couldn't tell whether Museum Arts has used this technique with success in the past. Their website shows one possibility in its portfolio gallery of the East Texas Oil Museum, but it's tough to say whether the horses in the photo are reproductions or mounted. I would be extremely interested to see any studies or evaluations done on exhibits - history exhibits, not natural history - comparing the effectiveness or impact of stuffed & mounted animals as opposed to recreations.

It seems to me that in taking life in order to embellish its galleries (not for scientific purposes), this museum has crossed a line. They are reaping the consequences of that action now as well; as of September 25, the Museum of Agriculture's Facebook page had 392 likes, and the Save the Lubbock Mules campaign's had 1,266.

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