Mass extinctions are, by definition, deadly events. They happen when a shift in the environment—a volcano eruption, perhaps, or a sea level rise, or climate change—causes many living species to become extinct at a relatively rapid rate. Scientists have identified five mass extinctions throughout our planet’s history and suspect we’re now living through the sixth.
On Today’s Horizon: Mass Extinction is a new exhibition at Amherst’s Beneski Museum of Natural History curated by Antonella Dominguez ’18. It provides a context for mass extinctions of the past, present and future by highlighting the history of the five and asking viewers to consider what they can do to help mitigate the sixth—which has already led to the disappearance of numerous plants and animals and the degradation of coral reefs, rainforests and other biodiverse habitats, mainly as a result of human activity.
Dominguez, a museum guide at the Beneski since her first year at Amherst, has also worked as a volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She’s majoring in anthropology and Asian languages and civilizations and is interested in the communication of science through museums. She remembers visiting the Beneski for the first time as a prospective student: “I knew when I walked in that I wanted to come to Amherst and I wanted to work in this museum,” she says. “I also wanted to learn what it takes to curate scientific exhibitions.”
Four years later, she’s done just that. Her exhibition spans all three floors of the museum and includes green panels of text that talk about each of the mass extinctions. She also created two-dimensional illustrations of extinct species that accompany some of the text. The exhibit is the culmination of a special topics course Dominguez took with Massachusetts Professor in Chemistry and Natural History (geology) Tekla Harms. The course included reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and materials about the principles of exhibition design and interpretive label writing.
There’s no better place on campus for an exhibition about mass extinctions than the Beneski. The museum is home to more than 1,700 fossil skeletons and specimens that illuminate species that have come and gone, such as the Ice Age mammoth, mastodon and saber-toothed cat displayed on the first floor. Dominguez’s exhibition text and illustrations begin at the museum’s main entrance and are strategically scattered throughout the museum. “The scale of the exhibit materials is small,” says Beneski Museum Educator Alfred Venne, “but the exhibit is designed to use many of the permanent exhibits in the museum to bring home the curator’s message. So, in another way, the exhibit is quite large in scale.”
While giving a guided tour of the exhibition last month, Dominguez explained, “There are always extinctions happening, but mass extinctions are on a larger scale in a very short period of time.” She noted that the five previous mass extinctions occurred naturally, and that factors leading to the sixth are primarily a result of human activity. Her hope is that viewers will learn about the process and events of the past that have led to mass extinctions, and how those same processes can be seen today.
Dominguez was recently awarded the Amherst-Doshisha Fellowship, a unique opportunity for a graduating senior at Amherst’s sister school in Kyoto, Japan. She’ll head there in September and begin an entirely new project: exploring immigrant experiences in Japan and sharing their stories via a blog or podcast. “I’m interested in finding unique ways to tell stories,” she says, “and helping people better understand each other and the world around them.”
On Today’s Horizon: Mass Extinction remains on view at the Beneski Museum of Natural History through Commencement on May 20. The museum is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit the links below to learn more about the Beneski and plan a visit.