In thinking about an exhibition experiment on traps, we organised what we like to think of as 'expert meetings', with three scholars who have research interests in traps. Through conversations, the themes of the exhibition have emerged, and are also influencing design elements. We met Gunnar H. Gundersen (HiOA), Jostein Bergstol (KHM), and Espen Wæhle (Maritimt museum).
Photo: Prof. Gunnar H. Gundersen (left) explains the design principles of his mouse traps
Gunnar H. Gundersen is a professor of design, and through the years has accumulated a collection of mousetraps (about 300), that he uses to teach students. Showing us items in his collection, he talked about the simplicity and functionality of traps: mouse traps are not meant to be pretty. He has been thinking about ways of classifying traps, and thinking about their 'evolution'. One interest is in how 'ethics' is built into the trap: whose job is it to kill the mouse - the trap itself or the human? There are two basic types of traps - those that kill and those that hold captive without killing. The work of killing might be designed into the trap - and the kill can be 'humane' (fast and efficient), or not so nice (e.g. 'glue traps' in which the mouse gets stuck and dies of hunger - eventually). Through the collection, another intriguing theme emerges: the co-evolution of trap design with the sensitivities of users. Some new models of traps capture the mouse in a sealed chamber, and users do not have to touch or see the dead animal, in fact these traps are advertised as 'hygenic'.
Jostein Bergstol is an archaeologist at KHM. He has been researching pit traps in the archaeological record of Scandinavia, as well as 'funnelling' devices that direct a large number of animals in an enclosure where they can be killed more easily. Pit traps have been used for thousands of years, but mass killings using traps and funnelling are particularly present around 0-500 AD, and in the Medieval period, largely driven by high demand for antlers, to be transformed into combs and traded throughout Europe. In contrast to mouse traps for instance, these are traps that should not kill the animal, or at least not puncture the stomach lining, otherwise the meat will be inedible. Traps are a modification of the environment - felled trees form barriers that direct animals toward the trap dug into the ground and reinforced with rocks or poles, or short poles in the ground 'encourage' the grazing animal to move in a certain direction. The behaviour of the animal can be part of the trap: animals at the head of the herd, even if wanting to turn back from the trap (an enclosure) will be pushed forward by those behind. Animals learn - a specific route might become abandoned by the animals after a number of years, forcing hunters to create other traps elsewhere; the animals might go back to the original route after a few generations.
Espen Wæhle is an anthropologist, formerly based at KHM, now at the Maritime Museum. He talked to us about his fieldwork among the Efe people (or ‘Pygmies’) of the Congo, in the 1980s. He collected some traps, now in the collections of KHM. He described a number of ways of trapping – pits, deadfall (heavy objects falling on prey), cage, arrow traps. Espen was asking us, what counts as a trap? Arrowheads, might be used with a bow, but sometimes they are part of traps. Can music be a trap? The Efe spend more time singing and dancing than hunting and gathering: music is the gift to the forest, which responds by providing food. A 'honey flute' is used seasonally to ask the forest for honey. It would not be possible to collect honey were it not for the music of the flute. So, is the flute and its music a kind of trap? Trap here would be defined as action over animals at a distance – including with the use of music. In the past, the Efe hunted elephants by suspending a heavy log held suspended vertically over the branch of a tree, a spear attached to the log. The elephant triggers the trap and gets speared in the back. Sometimes, humans sit on the same kind of branches, waiting in ambush for an animal to pass by. What is the difference between the trap and the hunter? As a museum curator, Espen also brought us to think about collections: what is not collected when we collect traps? The environment, trees and soil, might be part of the trap, or sounds, human cries and singing. Or the poison that is thrown into the river to kill fish.
These three expert meetings have brought us to reflect on these key themes:
• how are ethical dealings with animals built into the trap as an artefact?
• how do traps scale up, from trapping an individual to a herd?
• what counts as a trap, and how does that inform the collecting of traps by a museum?
• what design elements of traps can be adopted in a museum exhibition on traps?