Creating Endangered Species: The Interaction between Science and The Arts

Posted on April 7, 2013

What is an endangered species? Both ‘species’ and ‘endangerment’ are human constructs created by science as part of descriptive conventions. Actor-network theory suggests that clusters of actors – both material and semiotic – are involved in creating meaning of such descriptive conventions. This paper will explore how the arts can interact with the sciences to shape and reconfigure meaning. Using the context of ‘endangered species’ we argue that artistic representations are central to creating meaning around species endangerment. The discussion is underpinned by empirical research in which we documented the effects of an exhibit of fine art photographic animal portraiture on museum visitors’ perceptions of animals at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Empirical methods have not previously been used to examine the impact of artistic representation on the meaning of endangered species.  Using a Personal Meaning Map, we showed how the exhibit led visitors to give a different meaning to ‘the animal’, and changed visitors’ perceptions of endangerment and their motivation to act. The findings support our hypothesis that appropriate artistic approaches to animal representation can significantly change perceptions of animals. We argue that in a post-modern world, cultural interventions that embrace free learning and are attuned to the emotional and psychological drivers of people’s motivation to act can have a significant impact on how we construct scientific concepts such as ‘endangered species’.