By Ken Williams | Editor
Museum of Man exhibit looks at our relationships with other creatures
Humans and animals have co-existed since the dawn of mankind, a relationship as benign as cuddling on the couch with Fido, as creepy as sharing an old house with rodents and roaches, or as sacrificial as eating them as food on a plate.
“Living With Animals,” a fascinating new exhibit that opened March 11 at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park, explores those themes and more. Created in-house, the exhibit will be on view for the next three years.
Sarah Crawford, the exhibit curator, gave San Diego Uptown News a private tour of the new show. When she moved here from Chicago, one of the first things she observed was San Diegans’ fondness for their animals.
“People in San Diego love their dogs,” she said, noting that many bar and restaurant owners go out of their way to welcome canines. That planted a seed in her mind, and soon the concept for the new exhibit began to blossom.
“There’s opportunity and challenges in tackling a topic like animals, but we’ve created an exhibit that feels fresh both in its whimsical, vibrant design and in its non-traditional approach to storytelling,” Crawford concluded. “‘Living With Animals’ looks at the animals we encounter every day in our lives and homes — our beloved pets, the pests crawling through our walls, and the side of bacon we put on our plates — and asks how we decide which of these categories they belong in.”
Visitors enter the exhibit through an area dubbed “Living With Pets.”
First up is “The Living Room,” a warm and inviting space located on the museum’s second floor and situated directly above El Prado.
“This space formerly was used as the Time Tunnel, so we opened up the [shuttered] historic windows for the first time in a long time so everyone can enjoy the views,” Crawford said.
Looking out the windows to the west is a view of the top of the historic Cabrillo Bridge, while the east view provides a glimpse of Plaza de Panama.
“The Living Room” is a reflection of the modern world, showing how animals have become such an important part of everyday life. Notice the animal carvings and figurines, “animal” pillows, photos with people and their pets, even an animal trophy on the wall.
A fun “hands-on” activity in “The Living Room” is a card game where you pick the faces of people out of a hand of cards and try to match them with their dogs.
If you think this person shares a home with a bulldog, you lift the canine’s image to see if you picked the right match.
“They say that people look like their dogs,” Crawford said. “Even studies have shown that.”
All of the people and dogs are from San Diego. The humans and their pets were found at dog parks or dog beaches, and the pet owners agreed to participate in the exercise.
The next alcove provides five examples of dog collars throughout history, from a shocking array of spikes designed to prevent worker dogs from being attacked by other wild animals to a crude metal muzzle crafted to protect humans from getting rabies from dog bites.
“The Animals on Our Plates” examines how humans decide which animals are fit for our plates. This is designed to be provocative, to stimulate memories and discussions, and shows how human taste buds have changed over the years.
In a fake dining area, visitors can sit at a table containing five plates representing different parts of the world. For example, we learn that Americans eat far more meat than the Chinese.
Two dining tables project virtual meals from five countries over the last 100 years, when we ate different kinds of meats. Pigeons, for example, were commonly served just two generations ago in the United States.
Crawford said one of the big differences is that humans used to hunt and kill the animals they ate, but that changed later in the 20th century when it became cheaper to buy from the local supermarket.
Another alcove shows hunting tools we once used, such as the halibut hook, the crossbow, and the blood milk flask from Africa.
Tucked away in an area designed for privacy is “From Farm to Factory,” showing historical images from slaughterhouses. The images were taken by the Swift slaughterhouse, which pioneered the modern meatpacking operation.
These images can be disturbing to folks who are unfamiliar with how animals are killed to eat.
“We want people to have a dialogue about the process of slaughtering our food,” Crawford said.
Around another corner is a video area, showing dairy cows, a chicken-grabbing machine and a pig nursery. Again, these videos are not for the squeamish.
A third phase of the exhibit focuses on “Living With Pests.” A large mural — titled “Cockroaches, rats, and pigeons are just animals, but the way we live makes them ‘pests’” — explains how these three animals ended up being smeared with bad reputations. The pigeon was bred to be fast and smart, and their natural abilities came in handy for surviving in a hostile environment.
San Diego imported thousands of pigeons for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, Crawford said, “because they thought it would create a ‘big city-like atmosphere’ and ‘feel authentic.’”
She found historical photos of women wearing big hats and fancy clothes, surrounded by hundreds of pigeons in Balboa Park. Today, she said, pigeons are considered a nuisance in many parts of the world.
For centuries, humans have tried to kill off rats. In one corner of the exhibit is a collection of rat traps from across the course of history.
“I bought most of these on eBay,” she said, laughing. “I must have raised some eyebrows somewhere.”
Crawford pointed to one gruesome example, a two-hole rat trap with twin nooses. The rat would enter the trap and its neck would be caught in the noose, which would snap and tighten until the critter was dead.
More than 4,400 rat-trap patents have been filed in the United States.
“And people say you can’t build a better mousetrap,” she said, smiling.
On the lighter side is a whimsical representation of Ma and Pa Rat as tourists, standing on luggage as they stow away on a ship heading abroad. It points out the age-old problem of how humans have unwittingly helped animals to migrate to places where their species have never lived.
Finally, visitors are invited to enter a tent, where they can hear 12 San Diegans share their stories of impressionable encounters with animals that have affected their lives.
The audio was recorded by the So Say We All storytellers group in San Diego. The 90-second audio clips play consecutively as an abstract video is projected on the walls and ceiling.
The exhibit is aimed at a target audience of 18 to 34, but Crawford believes that people of all ages would find something to pique their interest.
She again cautioned that some portions of the exhibit might disturb small children or people who aren’t familiar with the complete cycle of the food chain.
“It’s layered enough that even kids can enjoy it,” she said.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.