Three rooks' heads from the Natural History Museum, London. First displayed in 1881.

I recently made at trip (or as one friend put it, “what you’re describing is a pilgrimage, Crompton”) to the Natural History Museum in London. It has all the qualities that I like in a museum: super-fatted gothic architecture, knowledgeable staff, and a sensational bird collection.

Victorian curatorial practices are curious to the contemporary visitor. A bird case from the Museum’s inaugural year, 1881, is tucked into one corner of the bird hall. Rather than displaying the mounted birds whole, the case is full of disembodied heads, wings, feet and feathers – the better, I assume, to teach the viewer about bird anatomy. The accompanying text is excessively didactic. The Latin names of the each joint and tendon season the explanatory prose since, as the 1886 catalog suggested, by “the aid of explanatory labels, the essential characters and the principle modifications of all these parts can be easily followed.” As this passage makes clear, the information comes first, birds’ structure second, with the viewer passive-voiced out of existence. The 1886 catalogue text provides a striking contrast to the perpetual use of the second-person pronoun of the Museum’s contemporary explanatory prose.

On a side note, I had originally planned to write a post about John Gould, one of the first curators of the London Zoo. The Natural History Museum has some of his most beautiful lithographs. I wanted to post about his writing, but haven’t been able to find any of his illustrated books online (although his monograph on Australian birds is available). Can anyone point me in the right direction?

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2 thoughts on “Avifauna for the Masses

  1. I find your photograph of those disembodied bird heads rather uncomfortable to look at Connie. Is that true for viewing the exhibit in person too?

    This mode of exhibiting the birds seems to assume that evolution (“principal modifications”) is premised on itemization. That is, it’s not the entire organism, the entire bird, that evolves but only the angle of its beak or the color of its feathers. Doesn’t this leave out the way that different “modifications” work in tandem as part of the process of natural selection?

    (By the way, I love your description of the viewer being “passive-voiced out of existence”!)

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