Maya Lin Memorializes Lost Species, Asking: What Is Missing?

MayaLinRenowned artists Maya Lin has memorialized the Civil Rights movement and lost landscapes. Her most recognized memorial is erected in Washington DC and honors the lives lost in the Vietnam war. Now, Lin has embarked on a multi-site, multi-media memorial that honors the species we’ve lost—but also examines the reasons we’ve lost them and what can be done to avoid losing many, many more.

Lin debuted the exhibit, called What Is Missing?, at the California Academy of Sciences this week, and also presented a lecture during the LEED-rated museum’s weekly Nightlife event. The focal point of the exhibit, four years in the making, is a massive steel-and-(reclaimed) redwood outdoor “listening cone” meant to mimic a megaphone. Viewers peer into the cone and experience a looping 20-minute video and audio presentation that documents the underlying causes of species loss and serves as a clarion call for viewers to help protect biodiversity and prevent the habitat loss that is a root cause of species extinction.

Lin’s goal is to tie species loss, inextricably, to habitat loss and climate change. In her mission statement, she says “we cannot think of our carbon footprints without also measuring our impact in terms of biodiversity and habitat protection.”

Working with the themes of abundance and scale, the exhibit explores historical records to illustrate how even species that still exist have lost vitality, both in terms of their populations and individual sizes. Six-foot long lobsters and 40-pound wild turkeys were once common. Flocks of birds used to blacken the sky. Now, one in eight bird species is at risk of extinction.

During her presentation at the debut, Lin also provided some obligatory “what you can do” tips—such as buying only shade-grown coffee rather than that raised on plantations—but in the context of her thoroughly documented research, they carried renewed weight.

Aside from living at the Academy of Sciences, the exhibit will also travel, starting at the Beijing Center for the Arts and the Storm King Art Center in New York. On Earth Day 2010, a five-minute film linked to the What Is Missing? exhibit will debut on the MTV digital billboard in Times Square, NYC. And the site that accompanies the exhibit,, will be growing to include many more video and audio segments between now and then.

Lin collaborated with a number of important research organizations, including the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, the National Geographic Society and ARKive,  an organization that has collected a vast image and sound library of species in need of protection. In addition, Lin has founded the What Is Missing? Foundation to raise money for species protection and for raising awareness.

If you can’t make it to San Francisco to see the exhibit, try to catch it on tour, or at, the very least, bookmark the website. No matter where you live or how you make your living, you’re likely to find that Lin’s exhibit puts a decades-old crisis in a new and highly-relevant context.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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