I believe in the magic of a real object to tell a story and evoke memories. Sometimes these memories are intensely personal: I see twenty small costume dolls from the book Homemade Dolls in Foreign Dress that my grandmother made me for every early Christmas and birthday. I see grandpa’s sweater metamorphed into a scratchy brown camel, my mother’s dress into the Swedish girl’s apron, and think of grandma stitching love into each creation. Someday I will pass both this love and these dolls to my grandchildren. Perhaps her stitches will link us all forward and backward in time.
On a professional scale, I work as a museum zoology curator. There I tend drawers of skins and bones and eggs and cases of animals preserved in alcohol. Each one has a story to tell for those who take the time to look and listen. You couldn’t possibly imagine some of these animals without a record of their physical existence. One of my favorite specimens is a two gallon-sized elephant bird egg which is supposedly the largest egg ever produced by any animal. What is an elephant bird? Adults sometimes recall Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg in which Horton, the caring elephant, hatches Mazie The Lazy Bird’s half elephant/half bird egg after pages of adventures. This is a delightful story, but the wrong one as Suess was better story teller than a biologist!
The correct story is even more fascinating. Who could imagine the reality of a 10’ tall, 1000 pound “ostrich on steroids” like the real Madagascar elephant bird! No white man is known to have seen this marvel alive, as it supposedly was extinct by 1650. Our museum does not have a skeleton, as do some larger museums, but we do have that impossible egg: beige and pitted and 15” long, larger even than dinosaur eggs, which would have fed dozens at brunch. Everyone who sees it expresses astonishment: I can see in their eyes imaginations picturing gigantic birds striding across a now inaccessible world. And this wouldn’t happen by just reading about the egg—it is the solid reality of the object that triggers the reaction. Perhaps they will also wonder about today’s species and act to prevent their extinction.
This egg reminds me of the fragility of memories and makes me wonder how many species will be only found in museum collections subject to a precarious existence due to insects, natural disasters, carelessness, and budget cuts.