Taxidermy and Museum Collections

November 29, 2011


The photo above is by Klaus Pichler. It's from a NYT article that was pointed out to me recently, and can be viewed here. The photos were taken by Pichler behind the scenes at Vienna's Museum of Natural History. I love the photos, of course, and identify with Pichler in the sense that we are both artists snooping around the dark corners of a natural history museum. But the photos bring up other issues about museums, and more specifically, taxidermy specimens.

As I have been posting more photos recently of my work at the museum, and of study skins from the collections, I have been feeling the need to address some of the conflicts these objects represent. I'll begin by saying that I find the study skins and mounted specimens of the Field's collections (and other natural history museums) incredibly beautiful. They are beautiful as art objects, for their skilled craftsmanship, and as animals that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to study so closely. Working with birds that I make in to study skins and the collections' specimens is a privilege I try never to take for granted. I respect that these were all living creatures.

This brings me to my next point which is that while as beautiful, and as inspiring I find the specimens, they are essentially, well...dead animals. As one begins to spends more time around them, and as Pichler points out in the NYT article, you begin to wonder: where did they come from? How were they obtained, and why are so many needed? The answers to these can be pretty complicated, and would merit a much longer post than the already lengthy one I have here. For example, in my previous post about the Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers, few would miss the irony that museums have drawers full of species like the Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers, Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, but that none of these exist in the wild today. In the case of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeets, they have been extinct for close to a century.

While I acknowledge there was a time in museum's histories where collecting specimens went unchecked, and was often another colonialist stab of pillaging another country's natural resources, museum collecting was not the reason why a particular species went extinct. In the cases of Imperial and Ivory-billed (if they are indeed extinct) it is mainly due to habitat loss. The Passenger Pigeon went extinct due to massive market hunting that slaughtered birds by the millions. Carolina Parakeets were seen as a crop pest, as well as hunted for their beautiful feathers for womens' hats. As someone that will never, ever see a live Passenger Pigeon, I look at a specimen of it as a symbol of human greed, a valuable scientific research tool, a piece of American and ecological history, as well as a beautiful animal and object. Also, not least of which, it is a tool to educate as to why a species as once numerous as Ectopistes migratorius went extinct in the first place, and as of evidence of its existence.

The specimens I mentioned above are very old, as most would have been collected around the late 19th century. But museums continue to collect for research, and in my case, I work with some of those specimens. The birds I work on die as the result of colliding with downtown buildings, or exhaustion from being confused by skyscraper lights. These birds are collected by volunteers, brought to the museum, logged in, made in to specimens that are used for research, and thus help our understanding as to how urban areas are affecting these migrating species.

That is one way museums, and the Field in particular, obtain current specimens. The other is that they will occasionally go on collecting expeditions to other countries. While these expeditions are closely monitored and controlled, collecting means hunting. There is a lot to make one uncomfortable, and I know people make the distinction between a bird that dies via colliding with a building in Chicago or New York, and one that is caught in a mist net in Africa; one was an "accident" and one a deliberate kill. Both are used for research, and research that will directly benefit the survival of a particular species. I have to tread carefully here, as I am not a scientist, obviously, and not really qualified to justify all of this fully. But as someone that has worked with the specimens, the biologists, and has seen the results from data gleaned from these specimens has had on helping to preserve a species and the environment, I would say the positive outweighs the negative.

I'll leave it at that for now. Trust me, I could go on. My mind is racing with thoughts on the nature of collecting, colonialism, animal rights, factory farming, poaching, vegetarianism. Yikes. Thanks for indulging the rambly-ness. If I am to continue posting photos of specimens and the work I do at the Field Museum, I wanted to talk about some of the issues I have with it.

5 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing - I always wondered how such things came to be. I also have seen the bird rescue people several times when walking downtown early in the morning and was always curious about what happened if they tried rescuing a bird and it didn't make it.

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  2. Thanks for indulging me, and lending your attention span to a long post.

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  3. Diana, this is of course a post whose ideas and questions I relate to deeply. I am so glad you wrote it, and am moved by your voice.

    I have found myself thinking more and more about the distinction between "our" birds (the ones you and I work on) and the ones that come back from collecting trips. It's hard to feel like we have all the information it requires to truly weigh the benefits and costs in the equation here, but I agree that knowing the people and a little bit of the science involved makes it easier to feel that respect and concern are embedded in every action.

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  4. Interesting food for thought. It speaks in so many ways to the relationship between humans and animals, and whether our human approaches (as the more powerful species) are justifiable rights or humbling privileges.

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