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Cornell Lab Helps Artist Maya Lin Ask “What is Missing?” on Earth Day 2012

Golden-winged Warbler
The Cornell Lab submitted 14 conservation stories to Maya Lin’s What is Missing? project, including one about the Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Action Plan.

Renowned artist Maya Lin—whose artwork and architecture over the past three decades has included the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama—has chosen Earth as the subject of her last memorial. And she chose the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help tell the story.

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Entitled What is Missing?, the artwork is a tribute to species and wild places both gone from our planet forever and currently being rescued from extinction. And it challenges the notion of a memorial as a singular static object, instead existing in multiple forms and multiple places. That multiplicity was on display on Earth Day 2012 at the Bloomberg Tower in New York City and on the Web.

At Bloomberg Tower last Friday, employees were transported from Manhattan into the world’s wildest places via What is Missing? multimedia exhibits. A massive video installation in the atrium featuring roaming polar bears of the Arctic and the watery wilderness of mangrove swamps in Florida. The elevators at Bloomberg Tower became mini-sound studios filled with the haunting calls of Commons Loons and reverberating songs of humpback whales. You can download a free digital release of the natural sounds used at the Bloomberg Tower Earth Day 2012 celebration from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library.

On the Web, Lin debuted a new section of her What is Missing? website on Earth Day 2012 called Conservation in Action, which is a dot-based map of more than 400 conservation success stories from environmental groups around the world (including the Cornell Lab, which contributed 14 stories about species such as Golden-winged Warblers, northern right whales, Bermuda Petrels, and forest elephants). Conservation in Action joins the Global Map of Memory, which was launched on Earth Day 2011 as a map of more than 600 accounts of species or places diminished or lost forever.

On both maps, each click of a dot unlocks a new multimedia story—tales from the days when 5-foot-long lobsters were harvested in New York and sturgeon swam the Hudson River; haunting underwater ballads of humpback whales, along with the cacophony of manmade noises that disrupt ocean ecosystems; video of dancing prairie-chickens, a species not yet extinct but threatened by development; an audio slideshow depicting the annual loss of tropical rainforests equal in size to the United Kingdom.

“Maya Lin is an extraordinarily gifted, multidimensional artist. She sees and embraces connections between people and nature everywhere, and expresses these beautifully in sculpture, architecture, and now multimedia,” said Cornell Lab executive director John Fitzpatrick. “The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is proud to be collaborating with Maya’s haunting and ambitious What Is Missing? memorial, helping to raise global awareness about the need to protect threatened species and habitats all around the world. Archived sound and video recordings from our Macaulay Library and the expertise of our scientists achieve an important new voice through Maya’s elegant blending of vision, passion for the Earth, and attention to scientific detail.”

Lin hopes her What is Missing? project is a wake-up call to what’s being lost on Earth, and also a call-to-action that everybody can play a role in conservation.

“Some people said that a memorial to our living planet was depressing, but I believe that using memories and history to show the abundance of biodiversity the planet once held can spur people to realize their power to connect with work that is under way and take steps in their everyday lives, no matter how small,” she said.

Some of those everyday steps are on display at Conservation in Action, which spotlights how people can make a difference in in global conservation by what they buy, eat, and drink. Check it out at

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library