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.

Imperial Woodpecker - Part II


November 17, 2011

As I had promised, here are some woodpecker specimens from the Field Museum collections. I went in yesterday to work my usual post in the prep lab making study skins. Dave Willard (collections manager) kindly assisted in locating the Imperial and Ivory-billed study skins that you see above. Both specimens are very old, and both species are most likely extinct at this point. The woodpecker on the right is an Imperial, and on the left is the Ivory-billed; both are very large birds. The Ivory-billed is about the size of a very large crow, to give you some idea. Both birds belong to the genus Campephilus. They needed large swaths of old growth habitat with the Imperial occupying montane pine forests of Mexico, and the Ivory-billed living in pinewood and tupelo swamps of the southern United States. The Ivory-billed is often confused with the Pileated Woodpecker, a similar looking species. Although sharing similar habitat and looks, the Pileated belongs to the genus Dryocopus.
The Pileated is quite common in areas of older forest growth, while the Ivory-billed is a ghost that most likely just haunts our collective human psyche rather than the swamplands it used to inhabit.

Imperial Woodpecker - Campephilus imperialis


November 15, 2011

Last week Science Friday posted a video of an Imperial Woodpecker. You can watch the video and listen to the interview with SF video editor Flora Lichtman here. I plan on volunteering at the Field Museum on Thursday and hope to look up and photograph one of their specimens there, in the meantime I found this image on Wikipedia. Imperials (native to Mexico) are closely related to our Ivory-billed woodpeckers, which is also most likely extinct. Ivory-billed are large, but the Imperials are massive. They would average 2 feet from head to tail. Anyway, check out the video on SF. It's truly amazing, but a little sad. As ornithologist and writer Tim Gallagher said, it's like seeing a ghost.



November 14, 2011

Hello - Good Monday to you. I love natural history books (duh), and have a very modest collection. In these cases I do judge a book by its cover. I bought the egg collecting book on Ebay for its gorgeous chromolithograph plates, and got The Real Book about Amazing Birds in trade for some books I was selling to a local used bookstore. I love the cover and the endpapers. It was published in 1955.

California Quails


November 11, 2011

I posted a couple of photos of this in process a while back, so here is the completed commission. Have a lovely weekend!

Robins, Robin, Robins


November 10, 2011

In the previous post, there's an image of a painting that was the first one I did for this particular job, but decided to go with this one instead. Both paintings are of an American Robin - Turdus migratorius. T. Migratorius belongs to Turdidae family, which also includes Wood and Hermit thrushes.

This fellow, however, is a European Robin Erithacus rubecula. European Robins are not related to T. migratorius, and belong to an entirely different family: Muscicapidae. Europeans settlers in N. America laid eyes on T. migratorius, and perhaps getting a pang of homesickness for their similarly red-breasted feathered friends at home, bestowed upon it the name of robin.

Little collage painting of Erithacus rubecula is in the store.

American Robin Gouache Painting


November 09, 2011

I was working on a commissioned painting of an American Robin today and yesterday. This first one I completed, I didn't think was appropriate for the taste of the person that commissioned it, so I made different painting and am offering this one for sale in my shop HERE.

I was in Austin, TX all last week, and so am catching up with work. I'll be posting more soon. : )

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