Curator Jane Winchell outlines the art, science and surprises on view in Bats!
PEM curator Jane Winchell, The Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center, has been fascinated by bats since she first found one in her backyard as a child. She studied bats locally in graduate school and has overseen the bat specimens and other animals in PEM’s natural history collection during her long and fruitful tenure at the museum. This year, she’s finally realizing her career dream of mounting an exhibition about the art and science of bats. We sat down with her to hear about the works and surprises on view in Bats! and learn why she’s so compelled by these remarkable creatures of the night.
Q: Why are we putting on an exhibition about bats?
Bats have an interesting association with Salem as a place that really celebrates Halloween and draws a lot of people here. This felt like a great opportunity to shed a different light on bats in how we think about them and how different cultures have perceived them. It references Halloween, but is not limited by that – because they are so much more.
Bats! is for everyone. This show is really meant for people of any age to come and experience bats – whether they like bats, don't like bats, know something about bats or don't know anything about bats.
Q: What will visitors experience in this exhibition?
People will see all kinds of different things: a soundscape evocative of bats, artworks and pop-culture items, interactives. Then there will also be a small colony of Egyptian fruit bats.
The bats will be protected in their own glass enclosure with a mesh top that allows people to see through it easily, but creates a barrier between the bats and the people. They'll be mostly just comfortably roosting, grooming and sleeping when people are coming in to see them.
Q: How will PEM staff be involved in the care and feeding of the bats?
This exhibition is a museum-wide effort. We have a two-part system: The bats’ main activity is at night since they’re nocturnal. Our trained volunteers set them up for the night with food and water, and then we leave them alone for the most part. We're looking to have some nighttime viewing, but mostly, that's the bats’ time. Then, in the morning, we replenish their food and water and clean up from their party the night before.
The Atrium Café is going to be ordering the food for us. If they have strawberries that haven't gotten used, for example, those will become cuisine for the bats. It's a nice way of making the most of the food that the café is purchasing.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about bats?
Bats are not born blind. Sometimes people think that bats can't see, but they have perfectly good vision. What they have that we don't have is an extraordinary sense of hearing and a way of projecting sound to create an image of their environment, called echolocation. This is why you don't have to worry about a bat running into you, even in total darkness.
Bats do not drink your blood. Out of the 1,400 known species of bats, only three species of bats, in Central and South America, feed on blood. (And they only eat a tiny amount from sleeping animals.) There are no vampire bats anywhere in North America.
We associate bats often with caves and underground places that are interpreted as portals to the underworld, to the occult, to those things that might do us harm or that might be connected with magic or evil. The common associations we have with bats are with characters like Dracula – negative associations. Bats are very gentle, and beneficial. They have so many positive attributes to them. That's what we are looking to emphasize in the exhibition.
Q: How have bats captured the imagination of people across cultures and time?
Bats have been used as a symbol of good luck and good fortune and happiness in China for centuries. Bats have been seen as powerful animals in Mesoamerica. There are images of bats associated with gods and having powers that a shaman would seek to understand and channel. In very ancient cultures, bats were seen as these remarkable beings that we would want to understand better.
We will be showing bats in artworks from an array of these different cultural perspectives, which I think will be really fun for people to see. Some may seem more familiar, and some may seem surprising!
Q: What are bats’ roles in nature?
Bats have so many superpowers that are just now starting to be recognized. They are the number one control for night-flying insects. Bats feed on crop pests and mosquitos. If we didn't have bats, we would have to invest much more money into other kinds of pest control, which often means chemical pesticides.
We think of birds and bees pollinating plants, but bats also play a key role as pollinators. Scientists have identified more than 500 different kinds of plants that are pollinated by bats. And there are likely more, because it's hard to observe bats pollinating at night. They are pollinators of saguaro cactus and also agave. Bats are pollinating the trees that produce cloves, or the balsa trees that make balsa wood airplanes. They pollinate wild banana trees.
Bats are also key seed dispersers. They will take a fruit, eat the fruit, often carrying it off to a different location. They may swallow the seeds, or they may just spit the seed out if it's a bigger seed. Bat poop is critical fertilizer for those seeds as well. In certain tropical places, up to 80% of new plant growth is attributable directly to bats distributing seeds.
Q: How are bats advancing science and technology?
There's still actually a lot that we don't know about them. Vampire bats, for example, have a protein in their saliva that's been separated out and named Draculin. It is being actively researched for its role as an anticoagulant for people who have undergone strokes and who have other kinds of clotting issues. Bats are also being researched for how to incorporate echolocation into technology for people who are visually impaired.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?
I really have come to appreciate how little most people know about bats and how curious they are about them. This is a chance for us to showcase some of the works from the museum's collection that feature bats, and to bring in some of the artists who are excited about representing bats and to grow our knowledge about these extraordinary beings of the night.
Bats are hard at work keeping our environment healthy, managing our insect populations and helping their ecosystems that they are part of function and thrive.
Bats are incredibly varied. Bats are beautiful. Bats are intelligent. Bats are social. Bats are mysterious. Bats have superpowers.
Bats! is on view through July 28, 2024. To learn more about the exhibition and our visiting bat colony, explore our frequently asked questions.
On view through July 28, 2024
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