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Forgotten history: When the squirrels came to town

Prior to the mid-19th century, squirrels were thought of as fantastic woodland creatures, rather than the urbane, city-dwelling vermin they are today. In fact, the available evidence suggests that, up until this point, there really weren't a whole lot of squirrels living in cities in the United States — at least, not with the ubiquity that they now do. What changed? A couple of things, according to a paper published in The Journal of American History. First, human architects and city planners got really into the idea of urban greenspace for the first time, constructing elaborate parks like Central Park in New York. Second, the humans then imported squirrels from the countryside to add to the bucolic ambiance they were hoping these parks would foster. The rest, as they say, is all rodent breeding and natural selection.

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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": The cyclops

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

From Australia's McLeay Natural History Museum at Sydney University comes ... dun dun dun ... the Cyclops!

Sorry. I've got a bit of THE TRIUMPH OF MAN stuck in my head. Actually, this skull belonged to a foal, says Justin Cahill, who sent in the photos. It's part of a long, natural history museum tradition of exhibiting the weird and often grotesque, preserving them as examples of how the natural way isn't always ideal. The same forces that shape evolution can also seriously screw you up. So much of what we call "normal" is based on chance.

Nobody ever actually saw this foal alive, by the way. The skull was found in the Hawkesbury River in 1841. But there have been attempts to reconstruct what the horse might have looked like during it's brief time alive. You can see that photo after the cut:

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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": The Poulton Elk

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

What lived in your neighborhood before your neighborhood existed? When did human beings first live on the land you think of as home? Those are the questions that make an old elk skeleton something extraordinary for reader Ant Mercer.

The Poulton Elk hails from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, England. It's part of an exhibition aimed at telling the story of Preston—or, rather, of the site that eventually became Preston. Here's Ant Mercer's explanation of why this elk is so meaningful:

I should point out that we don't have many exciting, ferocious and big animals naturally living in our habitats and this massive Elk stands out all the more for that. We don't have Elks in the UK anymore and, well, to this day I don't think I've seen one with it's skin on.

The Poulton Elk is a complete skeleton of a prehistoric elk that died in Lancashire around 13,000 years ago. The skeleton was found in 1970 by chance during the excavations for a house in Poulton le Fylde.

The discovery of the elk was of major importance as it had with it evidence of have been hunted by humans. Two bone points from weapons were found associated with it making the elk the earliest evidence of human habitation in this area.

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A collection of beloved collections

Full list of posts updated Monday, February 6. This is the final update.

Last week, I asked BoingBoing readers to send me images and stories about your favorite museum exhibits—beloved displays and collections squirreled away in museums that might not have a big profile outside your state or region.

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"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Where exhibits come from

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

This is actually a behind-the-scenes thing, submitted by Larry Clark, an editor at Washington State University's magazine. Clark made some videos about how curators at WSU’s Conner Museum prepare specimens for display.

In this video, curator Kelly Cassidy prepares a screech owl specimen. It is worth noting that this process involves flesh-eating beetles. Yes. Really.

Previously in this series:



"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Two nuclear bombs, slightly dented

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Arab Courier Attacked by Lions

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

Who says a diorama has to be boring? Sam Donovan's favorite museum exhibit is "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions", on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Built by Jules Verreaux for the Paris Exposition in 1867, it was purchased first by the American Museum of Natural History—which quickly thought better of it*—and was then sold to Andrew Carnegie in 1898 for $50. Today, it can be purchased in snow-globe form** for $40. Inflation is a bitch.

The lions preserved here are Barbary lions, a subspecies that went extinct in the wild in the early 20th century.

The "Arab courier", thankfully, is a mannequin. However, that might not have always been the case. Jules Verreaux had previously stuffed and mounted the corpses of non-Europeans before he made this diorama. Meanwhile, the man who was preparator-in-chief at the Carnegie Museum at the time they purchased "Arab Courier" once wrote that the courier "might have been real prior to 1899 when it was refurbished." So, yeah. Historical racism. How about that?

There are often problems associated with how natural history museums traditionally collected and displayed artifacts. The history here actually ends up being a great example of how culture and social norms and influence how we think about science. The facts may not change, but our interpretation of them does. For instance, the Dyche Museum at the University of Kansas, my childhood natural history museum, owns the taxidermied body of a U.S. cavalry horse that was the only member of the 7th Cavalry to survive the Battle of the Little Big Horn. For decades, this horse was billed as "the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn." Which, for obvious reasons, is both wildly inaccurate and pretty racist.

*The AMNH, while acknowledging the skill it took to produce a diorama like this, wasn't quite sure it lived up to their standards as a display of scientific educational value.

**Yes, there is something a little weird about snow falling on this scene.

Image: Flickr user happy via, via CC license.