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10:06 AM 9th June 2020

The Unseeables (A Tale Of Extinction In Three Birds)

Three ‘unseeable’ birds are at the heart of a new film from Scarborough Museums Trust exploring the strange and polarised relationships humans have with other species.

Great Bustard's eye
Great Bustard's eye
The film, which is about 11 minutes long, can be seen on the Museums Trust’s YouTube channel from Tuesday 16 June.

It explores loss, reparation, extinction and conservation, via the interwoven stories of three birds ‘lost’ to Scarborough, which survive as specimens in the Scarborough Collections.

The first is the sad and harrowing story of the great auk. The Collections holds a single egg of a great auk, a large flightless bird which became globally extinct in 1844. Its demise was brutal, cruel, and driven by profit; most were killed for their down. As they approached extinction, every specimen was coveted by museums, which ultimately put the prestige of an auk exhibit above the survival of a species.

Clay head of a Great Auk
Clay head of a Great Auk
Also in the Scarborough Collections are taxidermy examples of the great bustard and the corncrake.

The great bustard became extinct in the UK in the early 1800s. The males are huge and showy, performing glorious ruffle dances for their female harems. Diminishing populations still exist in Central and Southern Europe and Asia, and the bird has been the subject of a reintroduction project, which has recently succeeded in establishing a breeding population on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

The distinctive voice of the shy corncrake was once integral to the British soundscape. They started declining as agriculture became mechanised, and by the late 1930s corncrakes were absent from much of England, including Yorkshire, despite having been widespread across the North of England. They are now largely confined to the islands off the west of Scotland and the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland. To save the bird, British conservationists seek to educate and persuade landowners.

The film narrates the birds’ stories alongside imagery that weaves together close-up footage of the Scarborough Collections exhibits with found footage and sculptural responses by Feral Practice, in an impossible attempt to conjure the lost birds in their studio.

Feral Practice says: “As we comprehend (or relearn) the complex warp and weft of ecological thinking, and understand landscapes as self-creating masterpieces of which humans can never be masters, can we step back from our urge to manipulate, exploit and control? Will we allow other species the space they need to flourish alongside us on their own terms?”

The Trust would like The Unseeables to be accessible to everyone: the film is captioned and there is also a parallel audio experience of The Unseeables, for those who might find this helpful.

Feral Practice works with human and non-human beings as to create art projects and interdisciplinary events that develop ethical and imaginative connection across species boundaries. Their research draws on artistic, scientific and subjective knowledge practices to explore diverse aesthetics and create suggestive spaces of not knowing nature.

The Unseeables (a tale of extinction in three birds) is one of a series of new digital commissions from Scarborough Museums Trust as part of its response to the current crisis. The Trust has asked artists Kirsty Harris, Jane Poulton, Wanja Kimani, Feral Practice, Jade Montserrat, Lucy Carruthers and Estabrak to create digital artworks which are being released online across a range of social media platforms.

Scarborough Museums Trust’s YouTube channel is here. The film is showing from Tuesday 16 June.