Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The afterlife of animals

I have been busy this week reworking one of my chapters into a paper for an academic workshop that’ll take place at the University of Manchester in December.

The meeting – The Afterlife of Animals – has been organised by historian of museums Sam Alberti, who is “seeking to promote a wider understanding of the preservation and provenances of specimens and to suggest new ways to develop collections as both natural and cultural heritage.” It was a somewhat daunting honour for me – a writer rather than a bona fide academic – to contribute a paper on what happened to Chi-Chi the giant panda after her death in 1972.

This, in Sam’s words circulated to the dozen-or-so contributors, is the premise of the project.

Animals travel through sites for display in the modern world, acquiring meanings as they go. It is the contention of these papers that this accrual continues post-mortem; that they are mobile, flexible entities in death as they were in life. Animals and their remains connect museums and the menagerie, the exhibition and the wild. They were and are at once natural and cultural, the material embodiment of what historians of science dub ‘knowledge in transit’.

Sam has divided the workshop into five sessions – primates, hunter/hunted, behemoths, personalities and pachyderms. There will be two papers in each and my contribution on Chi-Chi will appear in the “personality” session along a paper by Manchester historian of natural history Chris Plumb who will reveal everything about “The Queen’s Ass” (a zebra gifted to King George III’s wife Charlotte as a belated wedding present, which took Georgian London by storm). It’s going to be great and is expected to result in an edited book.

What with tidying up this paper, writing a new epilogue for a reprint of Lonesome George and half-term, I didn’t quite make my rather woolly target of two more chapters to my editor by the end of October. I have one of them ready (on Armand David and the discovery of the giant panda), the second is close and am on the way with several more.

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