Burramys parvus, the critically endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum Image credit: E. Rotherham Source: Museum Victoria
Burramys parvus, the Mountain Pygmy Possum, officially moved one step closer to extinction this month. Every few years the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) updates its Red List, the global register of threatened species. In the most recent assessment, this little possum from the alpine areas of south-eastern has been upgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. And, needless to say, the next step along that path is not ‘Lives happily ever after…’
Extinct in the wild.
The exhibitions that we’re creating now will be in place for at least a decade. This influences many decisions in the development process, everything from the choice of materials we use to build the showcases to the wording of the object labels. How do we create something now that will still look appealing, still feel contemporary, still be up-to-date and relevant in ten years time? Things change quickly. In 1998 there wasn’t nearly the same level of public engagement with the concept of climate change as there is today, yet recently a whole exhibition on the subject opened in New York amid great publicity. And environmental change, particularly climate change, will be a very strong theme running through the new exhibitions at Melbourne Museum.
Climate change is one of the threatening processes listed for Burramys. As an alpine species that relies on an insulating layer of snow to protect it during its winter hibernation, Burramys is particularly susceptible to climate change. Save for being relocated to a captive-breeding ‘ark’, these creatures have nowhere to go if conditions become too unfavourable in their mountain-top habitat.
So will the Burramys label need updating during the life of the exhibition? The label I’m writing now says ‘Critically Endangered, estimated population 1700 adult females, 550 adult males and declining’. If the day comes when the label needs changing to ‘Extinct’, or even ‘Extinct in the wild’, please don’t ask me to write it – that’s not something I’d be able to do.
But of course, it doesn’t have to go that way. Perhaps in three years time the label can just read ‘Endangered’ again. Then in five years, ‘Vulnerable’. And maybe somehow, with enormous persistence, sound management and great science, the label that gets taken out of the exhibition when it finally closes one day could read ‘Burramys, population secure and increasing’.
Ten years is a long time in the life of an exhibition, and a short – but potentially very significant – time in the history of an exhibited species.