The changing symbolic meaning of the extinct great auk and its afterlife as a museum object at the Natural History Museum of Denmark

  • Katla Kjartansdóttir University of Iceland


This article examines the historical context and afterlife of the great auk as a museum object. The focus is on the changing meaning of the bird as it travels across cultural boundaries, material forms and historical periods. It starts by focusing on how the bird was contextualized within Ole Worm’s cabinet in the 17th century and then moves on to more recent museum representations. By conducting interviews with museum staff and professionals and analysis of items stored and/or exhibited at the museum, the symbolic meanings and representative functions of the great auk are brought into light. As proposed in this paper, certain characteristics, values and meanings stem from the materiality of the objects but also from their travels and re-locations. The investigation reveals how the role of the great auk in relation to collective museum (and human) challenges such as emerging ecological limits and biodiversity loss has been developing.

Author Biography

Katla Kjartansdóttir, University of Iceland

Ph.D. Candidate 

Department of Folkloristics, Ethnology and Museum Studies