A call to public galleries, libraries, archives, and museums to liberate our cultural heritage that has already been digitised. Illustrated with the cautionary tales of extinct species and our lack of access to what remains of them.
How many people know about the passenger pigeons?
Martha, the last passenger pigeon to ever live on Earth, died on 1 September 1914. Less than 50 years before her, wild pigeons, as they were also called, flew in flocks of millions in the USA and Canada. Their numbers were so vast their arrival darkened the sky for hours, and branches of trees broke under the collective impact of their landing. Accounts describing how it felt to witness these birds were already unimaginable to most people at the beginning of the 20th century. Still, they are not a matter of poetry but factual natural history.
Simon Pokagon, a Native American Pottawatomi author and advocate, as a young man lived in a time when he could still see passenger pigeons “move in one unbroken column for hours across the sky, like some great river […] from morning until night”. He noted that even though his tribe already named the birds 0-me-me-wog, “why European race did not accept that name was, no doubt, because the bird so much resembled the domesticated pigeon; they naturally called it a ‘wild pigeon’, as they called us wild men”. Pokagon writes about witnessing a method of hunting passenger pigeons by feeding them whiskey-soaked mast, rendering them flightless. He was shattered by a tragic parallel: his tribe was devastated by the introduction of mass produced alcohol by white men.
The history of the passenger pigeons is accompanied by a ubiquitous disbelief. When the sight of millions was an integral part of the ecosystem and the everyday life of modern America, many did not believe a species of such numbers could go extinct. When their disappearance became an undeniable experience, people said they simply moved to South America. Today, chasing dreams of resurrection in the face of anthropogenic extinctions shows the still continuing failure to understand the finality of their death and come to terms with our responsibility.
Deep under all this, there is a tragic lack of self-reflection on what we, humans are capable of. Many might try to dismiss this is as being only a matter of older times and societies long since transcended. Yet, there is no need to dig deep. Don’t forget about the widespread denial of climate change. Don’t forget about the anti-narratives to the Black Lives Matter movement claiming systematic racism does not exist, denying any connections to colonialism.
In order to improve, our definition of what it means to be human must include recognising the horrors we are capable of in societies of past and present. The systematic oppression of others and the massacre of billions of animals were done by human beings. Us. We can become better only if we realise that besides all the wonders, this is us too and it can happen again if we don’t change the ways we live together.
A photo of one of the last thylacines, a species which became extinct when Benjamin died on 7 September 1936. Our imagination tries to grasp it through animals we know: it’s some kind of a tiger or a wolf. But it’s none of that, not even remotely related. What colours did it have? What did it sound like?
How do we feel when we look at photographs of animals long gone? Melancholy, the repressed fear of death, sorrow but also empathy, the desire to act – these are very important feelings. Black and white conveys the sadness of a final loss that no colors can. Photography, no matter how deceptive it can be, is able to wash away cynicism and induce profoundly human emotions – ones we should feel when we think about injustice – human and non-human –, extinction or the climate crisis.
Looking at history provides a mental space where we can observe humanity and wonder about the whys and what ifs without the immediate frustration of the present. Exactly this removedness is what allows us to recognise and reflect on mistakes and right decisions.
We are supposed to learn from history yet we don’t have access to it. Historical photographs of extinct animals are among the most important artefacts to teach and inform about human impact on nature. But where to look when one wants to see all that is left of these beings? Where can we access all the extant photos of the thylacine or the passenger pigeon? History books use photos to help us relate to narratives and see a shared reality. But how can we look through our own communities’ photographic heritage, share it with each other and use it for research and education?
Historical photos are kept by archives, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions. Preservation, which is the goal of cultural institutions, means ensuring not only the existence of but the access to historical materials. It is the opposite of owning: it’s sustainable sharing. Similarly, conservation is not capturing and caging but ensuring the conditions and freedom to live.
Even though most of our tangible cultural heritage has not been digitised yet, a process greatly hindered by the lack of resources for professionals, we could already have much to look at online. In reality, a significant portion of already digitised historical photos is not available freely to the public – despite being in the public domain. We might be able to see thumbnails or medium sized previews scattered throughout numerous online catalogs but most of the time we don’t get to see them in full quality and detail. In general, they are hidden, the memory of their existence slowly going extinct.
The knowledge and efforts of these institutions are crucial in tending our cultural landscape but they cannot become prisons to our history. Instead of claiming ownership, their task is to provide unrestricted access and free use. Cultural heritage should not be accessible only for those who can afford paying for it.
Acknowledging the importance of access to information and cultural heritage, and the vital role of public institutions, we call on galleries, libraries, archives, museums, zoos and historical societies all over the world:
Today we are so far ahead in forgetting our past that we came very close to repeating it. Providing free, universal access to culture and knowledge is one of the steps we must take to prevent this.
African Digital Heritage • Archives Portal Europe Foundation • Associazione Italiana Biblioteche GOAPD • Center for Open Science • Crested Tit Collective • Curlew Action • DARIAH-EU • Europeana Foundation • Humanities for Change • International Centre for Archival Research (ICARUS) • Knowledge Futures Group (MIT) • New Networks for Nature • Open Education Resources Ghana • Open Humanities Press • Open Knowledge Maps • OPERAS • Pensoft Publishers • PHOTOCONSORTIUM • Research Ideas and Outcomes
- Daisy M. Ahlstone – Ohio State University
- Stacy Alaimo – University of Oregon
- Stefan Aumann – Hessian State Office for Regional History
- Patrick Barkham – The Guardian
- Amy-Jane Beer – Independent, biologist, nature writer
- Sarah Bezan – University of Sheffield
- Jeroen Bosman – Utrecht University Library
- Patricia Brien – Bath Spa University
- Ronald Broglio – Arizona State University
- Matthew R. Calarco – California State University, Fullerton
- Cameron Campbell – Online Thylacine Museum
- Fiona Campbell – Independent, artist
- Cat Chong – Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
- Christopher Cokinos – University of Arizona
- Marina Cotugno – Independent, photo editor
- Jill Cousins – Hunt Museum
- Thomas Crombez – Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp
- Istvan Csicsery-Ronay – DePauw University, Humanimalia
- Anna Dempsey – Bath Spa University
- Jessica M. DeWitt – Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE)
- Tinghui Duan – Friedrich Schiller University Jena
- Ehab K. Eid – IUCN Species Survival Commission
- Jonathan Elmore – Savannah State University
- Andreas Ferus – Academy of Fine Arts Vienna
- Frank Fischer – Higher School of Economics (Moscow), DARIAH-EU
- Franz Fischer – Venice Centre for Digital & Public Humanities
- Andy Flack – University of Bristol
- Errol Fuller – Independent, writer
- Madeline B. Gangnes – University of Scranton
- Terry Gifford – Bath Spa University
- Lucy Gill – University of California Berkeley
- Giovanna Gioli – Bath Spa University
- Dorothea Golbourne – Independent, sustainability copywriter
- Cesar Gonzalez-Perez – Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio (Incipit)
- Mitch Goodwin – University of Melbourne
- Andrew Gosler – University of Oxford, EWA
- Mark Graham – University of Oxford, Fairwork
- Jonathan Gray – King’s College London, Public Data Lab
- Adam Green – The Public Domain Review
- Katrina van Grouw – Independent, writer, illustrator
- Gary Hall – Coventry University, OHP
- Adam Harangozó – Independent
- Stevan Harnad – Université du Québec à Montréal, Animal Sentience
- Terry Harpold – University of Florida
- Caroline Harris – Royal Holloway, University of London
- Laura Hellon – Royal Holloway, University of London
- Marieke Hendriksen – Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)
- Charlotte Hess – Digital Library of the Commons, Indiana University
- Daniel Himmelstein – University of Pennsylvania
- Steve Hindi – Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK)
- Ben Hoare – Independent, author, naturalist
- Richard Hoffmann – York University
- Poul Holm – Trinity College Dublin
- Branden Holmes – REPAD
- Briony Hughes – Royal Holloway, University of London
- Julian Hume – Natural History Museum, London
- Richard Iveson – University of Queensland
- Sigi Jöttkandt – UNSW Sydney, OHP
- Paul Keller – University of Amsterdam, COMMUNIA
- Wouter Koch – Norwegian University of Science and Technology
- Richard Kock – Royal Veterinary College
- John Laudun – University of Louisiana
- Peter Maas – Independent, The Sixth Extinction website
- Roger Maioli – University of Florida
- Christof Mauch – Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU
- Federico Mazzini – MobiLab, University of Padova
- Daniel Mietchen – University of Virginia
- Paolo Monella – Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities
- Lenore Newman – University of the Fraser Valley
- Brian Nosek – University of Virginia, Center for Open Science
- Melek Ortabasi – Simon Fraser University
- David Ottina – Open Humanities Press
- Ben Parry – Independent, artist
- Bill Pascoe – University of Newcastle, Australia
- Justine Philip – Museum Victoria, University of New England
- Bo Poulsen – Aalborg University
- Andrew Prescott – University of Glasgow
- Kate Rigby – Bath Spa University
- Kenneth F. Rijsdijk – University of Amsterdam
- Gimena del Rio Riande – University of Buenos Aires, IIBICRIT-CONICET
- Antonella De Robbio – E-LIS
- Merete Sanderhoff – Statens Museum for Kunst Copenhagen, Europeana
- Marco Sartor – University of Parma
- Boria Sax – Mercy College
- Jeffrey Schnapp – Harvard University
- Philip Seddon – University of Otago
- Nicole Seymour – California State University, Fullerton
- Sadik Shahadu – Global Open Initiative
- Stephen Sleightholme – International Thylacine Specimen Database (ITSD)
- Cooper Smout – Queensland Brain Institute, IGDORE
- Genese Sodikoff – Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
- John Sorenson – Brock University
- Heather Staines – Knowledge Futures Group (MIT)
- Peter Suber – Harvard University
- Eline D. Tabak – University of Bristol & Bath Spa University
- Simon Tanner – King’s College London
- Chao Tayiana – African Digital Heritage, Museum of British Colonialism
- Michael P Taylor – University of Bristol
- Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra – DARIAH-EU
- Kevin Troch – University of Mons, MUMONS
- Harry Verwayen – Europeana Foundation
- Sacha Vignieri – Science Magazine
- Mathew J. Wedel – Western University of Health Sciences
- Francisco Welter-Schultes – University of Göttingen
- Joshua Williams – Bath Spa University
- Steve Williams – Singleton Park Library, Swansea University