The museum is an amazing, cavernous, somewhat eerie place. Many of its astonishing holdings were acquired in the early decades of the 20th century, making the museum a true cabinet of curiosities. The Hall of Birds is no exception. It contains hundreds and hundreds of preserved birds of all varieties, painstakingly arranged in a way that is at once beautiful, engrossing, poignant, and surreal.
Once, this museum was an almost unvisited place. It was a collection the public didn’t need. Rapid planetary change has since increased Americans’ appreciation for what it has to offer: a glimpse of species we would otherwise never see, many of whose habitats are crumbling, drying up, melting, sinking, heating up, toppling; being burned, bulldozed, polluted, eaten up; or otherwise vanishing. Change in the natural world is giving the museum’s holdings new relevancy.
All the specimens in the Hall of Birds have been cleaned, their displays updated and rethought—over a thousand specimens from all over the Americas and other parts of the world. There are even birds that became extinct back in the 19th century, like the Labrador duck, a bird with beautiful black and white plumage.
The specimens are so lifelike they’re almost disturbing. I had to remind myself that even the great naturalist painter John James Audubon relied on hunting and taxidermy for his models. Looking at these carefully frozen animals is a means of learning.
Some of my favorites were the Eider duck, which plucks down from its own breast to make a nest for its eggs; the petrel (I think it was) that flies the seas without ceasing; and the prairie chickens, once abundant in these parts but growing rare today.
Visiting the Hall of Birds made me glad and proud to live in this city. I have a feeling I’ll remember it for decades.