Exploring how conservation has changed since Theodore Roosevelt’s time


The herd of aluminum elk occupying the grounds of Sagamore Hill has sparked conversation among visitors about what conservation looked like during the era of Theodore Roosevelt.

But how has that process progressed over time? And what are today’s scientists doing to carry on the conservationist legacy of the nation’s 26th president?

Joseph Rossano, a native of Locust Valley, is answering those questions through art in “Conservation from Here,” a new exhibit at the Oyster Bay Historical Society, which will be open through the end of April.

Rossano explained at a reception last Saturday that while the elks and the exhibit in Sagamore Hill’s Old Orchard Room examine conservation in the past, the pieces on display at the Historical Society look to the future.

“The show is a realization of how we collect and understand nature” today, Rossano said. “The concept of collecting samples now is different from what it was back then. Our process of looking at natural history is viewing sequences of tissue samples.”

Among the non-traditional trophy heads — made from donated materials like foam, glass and plastic — are photo catalogues of local specimens. The data was collected by sixth-graders who attended Barcoding Research Camp at the DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor in 2015. They extracted and cataloged the DNA of each species themselves; some of the creatures had never been barcoded before.

Rossano said the construction of the four trophy heads — two elk and two bison —is a comment on how scientists look at nature. They are now able to take more into consideration using technology. For example, DNA sequencing allows them to understand the scientific composition of what they are studying more deeply. He calls this “fracturing.”

The cheetah and leopard fur rugs, adorned in a light mist of crystals, are meant to demonstrate how cataloging animals has evolved.

A pair of elephant tusks pulls your focus to the back of the room with their silvered surfaces, showcasing the gleaming future of conservation.

Each piece prompts visitors to consider the new and improved methods of the modern conservation movement, and to continue a conversation on them.

The artist’s personal connection to conservation blossomed in his youth when he attended nature camps at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. He remembered learning about Roosevelt’s impact on the environment through conservation, which eventually led him to craft art related to science.

“I could’ve written a grant and bought stuff to put in the exhibit, but the action of making this art means engaging an audience,” he said.

“It’s all about bringing you into that conversation of preserving and protecting [the environment], and realizing that it continues.”

Melanie Derschowitz, the collections manager for Oyster Bay Historical Society, said the subject of the exhibit was a perfect fit for the hamlet.

“People from Oyster Bay are very proud of its history, and this is a great way to talk about it, and what’s becoming of it,” she said. “[The exhibit] conveys an incredible story of what conservation was and what it is today.”

Susan Sarna, Sagamore Hill’s curator, said the exhibit is an inventive way to teach history to children.

“It is very difficult to interest kids today, but when they hear Theodore Roosevelt, the name captures them,” Sarna said. “This is the first time we’ve used modern art to teach history . . . and it’s elicited a conversation and created a forum to talk about the concepts that were dear to” Roosevelt.

Though Rossano plans to make the exhibit a traveling one, showcasing it to Oyster Bay in its infancy — where the conversation first “gained a footing” on the part of Roosevelt — brings the conservation conversation back to its roots.