For the fourth time, animatronic beasts are in Chester Zoo and, once more, my kids love them. I reflected on two previous exhibits on this Archaeodeath blog here and here. However, this time there is a distinct difference, for the beasts on display are not mainly long extinct pterosaurs and dinosaurs from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Instead, the 13 predators derive from different epochs from throughout the natural history of the Earth stretching over 200 million years up until the last went extinct only 10,000 years ago.
I have now thoroughly enjoyed seeing this exhibition 4 times, but for this latest incarnation I have four related and critical points to make about them from an archaeological perspective. Together they reveal connections to present-day fantasies about extinct beasts and a disconnection from both natural history and human agency.
1. Is it a ‘world first’?
The main news stories and Chester Zoo’s own website explain that these beasts, imported from the USA, are a ‘world first’. Well, that’s true in part, although visitors will recognise multiple dinosaurs from previous displays: T-rex, Utahraptor, Dilophosaurus, and Allosaurus, and an older version of Quetzalcoatlus. So 5/13 are recycled. That’s fine, but it is worth stating this qualifier, since this is now a tried-and-tested formula of temporary exhibition.
2. Is it really about extinction?
The rationale claimed for this exhibition is to highlight extinction as a threat to today’s animal kingdom. the new stories report uncritically and positively the message that the ‘giant robotic hunters’ ‘highlight extinction’. Quotes from zoo staff back this up. Examples of this style of reporting include the BBC, Cheshire Live here, and here, the Liverpool Echo, So Cheshire,the Manchester Evening News, the Shropshire Star. The idea promoted is that, by viewing the exhibit, visitors will reflect on the fear that tigers, lions and other beasts on display at the zoo will meet the same fate: experienced only as animatronic simulcra.
However, while this ‘take away’ message might be indeed emphasised in specific activities and talks linked to the temporary exhibition, nothing I saw linked the experience of meeting mega-beasts with extinction and conservation strategies more broadly. The aforementioned news stories emphasise the complex task of unloading the 13 models from their shipping containers more than anything else. Chester Zoo’s own website has limited information, and nothing about extinction. Instead, it focuses on key facts and the experience of meeting extinct predators face-to-face. Their online advert emphasises the fearsomeness of the beasts and their scale and eating habits: likewise nothing about extinction.
Tweets invite you to ‘come face-to-face’ with the beasts, and that’s all. Likewise, when you visit, each beast has an information board, with gives the rough geological era from which the specimen derives, but no scales (i.e. are they all 1:1? Previous exhibitions explained that some were not). Likewise no geographical regions are mentioned: yet again, nothing about extinction.
Indeed these beast are taken out of their environments and out of history in this timeline of terrifying predators. The fantasy is about humans meeting them in an imaginary world, not about how these beasts lived, let alone how they perished. Perhaps the only exceptions that allude to the actual predating and environments of the species are the terrorbird, who is shown holding a foal beneath its claws, and the sea scorpion which grasps a fish.
3. The dire wolf and Game of Thrones
As Deeside.com puts it (copying Chester Zoo’s press release I presume): the dire wolf were ‘given celebrity status by TV series Game of Thrones‘ . Meanwhile, the Manchester Evening News explains that the dire wolf is ‘infamous’. The Game of Thrones connection will hardly be lost on many, who will be enthusiastic to see the exhibition for the GoT associations as much as the Jurassic Park ones. Notably, despite the presence of a Smilodon, no Ice Age references are made in the press coverage: which I think is a missed popular culture reference! Thus, the dire wolf is the only connection to human interaction, and rather than done through the lens of actual Palaeolithic peoples, it is rendered through a fantasy Middle Ages. Obviously the physical exhibition doesn’t overtly mention GoT, but the promotional material does, including the Chester Zoo details explicitly state that the dire wolf was ‘given celebrity status’.
4. Human agency
A consequence of taking these predators ‘out of history’ in this zoological pathway past animatronic beasts is to omit the relationship with human evolution and diaspora. I’m way outside my area of expertise here, I admit, but I find it most strange that, for both the dire wolf, which seems to have gone extinct only around 9,500 BP, and smilodon which equally became extinct alongside other Pleistocene megafauna by 10,000 BP, an opportunity was missed to make a connection, direct or indirect, with the peopling of the New World after the last Ice Age. Similarly, the massive lizard megalania went extinct in southern Australia around 50,000 BP, and it has been suggested that human arrival might also be a cause of this extinction. Therefore, not only does the exhibition fail to foreground extinction, it doesn’t mention anthropogenic factors in the demise of some of these mega-beasts.
Pulling these four critical points together, I think there is something subtly spurious and misleading about the Predators exhibition, both in terms of its pulled punches regarding megafaunal extinction and human agency, and its sublimation of natural history into a experience of modern human imaginary and fantasical encounters with these fearsome beasts. Still, it was great fun!