Connected \\ October 31, 2023
PEMcast 34: Hanging with Bats
Bats have an interesting association with Salem, a place that celebrates Halloween pretty much year round. We’re used to seeing multiple versions of Dracula around town, including some of the million-plus tourists visiting the city. But lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time in awe of our latest installation: a small colony of live Egyptian fruit bats living in a specially designed enclosure in a gallery here at the museum.
Live bats in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
In this latest episode of the PEMcast, we talk with members of our staff who are charged with feeding and caring for these creatures of the night. We stop in for a 4 pm breakfast, just as the nocturnal bats are waking up, and watch them move, collectively and carefully, toward their food.
“Bats live in colonies,” says Aaron Cleveland of Build 4 Impact, the organization that raised the visiting bats in captivity and prepared them to travel as museum ambassadors. “They work together as a colony to provide protection, to raise their young, to signal to each other for different food, for predators – that sort of thing.”
We hear from our Curator Janey Winchell, who has wanted to bring bats to PEM’s Art & Nature Center for decades. “I would like people to like bats,” she says. “I think they're extraordinary and unique. But I'm less concerned with people liking bats than them respecting and appreciating them as really vital living beings on the planet.”
Winchell shares some of the latest bat science, like a protein found in the saliva of vampire bats called Draculin that is being actively researched for its role as an anticoagulant for people with clotting issues. Another theme awaiting visitors to this exhibition is the significance bats hold in different cultures around the world. The accompanying bat-themed artworks in the gallery range across a dozen countries and several centuries.
Resa Blatman, Small Bat Portrait 1, 2008 Oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.
“We have the association here – which has often Christian roots – of how the Bible has portrayed bats as unclean animals, which then perpetuated a lot of the connections with bats and the devil, and the devil having bat wings, for example,” says Winchell. “If we go to China, there is a long-standing association in Chinese culture between bats and good luck. The bat has been used as a symbol of good luck and good fortune and happiness in China for centuries.”
We also feature Salem’s former Artist in Residence, Maia Mattson, as she learns about the facial and wing structures of bats while building paper mache sculptures for an installation down the street from the museum. The bats are in an old shop window, placed in a beautiful botanical world Mattson created with found plant material and ethereal silks dyed with the petals of native plants. The two walls are covered by one continuous sheet of stretched silk that has been dyed and coated with beeswax to both protect the material and create deeper color and texture.
The result of plant dyeing on the silks in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin
In her proposal for the project, Mattson wrote, “Like many pollinators, bats are attracted most to their native plant species. Both bats and native plant species are threatened due to continued habitat disturbance from urbanization and human impact. Both need support in order to survive these changes. Stylistically, this installation appears delicate and playful – plants and bats encircle each other gracefully. The botanical display hangs atmospherically within the display case. However, there is also a precarious nature to these choices, an inherent fragility and uneasy balance within the beauty.”
Join Mattson and I as we forage for native plants and head back to her studio for the resulting dyed silks, which reveal a watery mosaic of bright flower prints.
Paper mache bats in Maia Mattson’s studio. Photo by Dinah Cardin.