The Not So Beautiful Birds
By Mark Carnall, on 13 August 2014
Recently this specimen and a number of other bird skeletons came back from our conservation lab. When I first started at UCL these nine skeletons were in the dreaded “curator’s cabinet” a cabinet of broken and miscellaneous specimens that were presumably the bane of previous curator’s lives. These skeletons were fragmented, partially disarticulated and all the fragments mixed together. I gave these specimens to Gemma Aboe who was undertaking some conservation work for us and she managed to piece together a number of half skeletons from this mixed box. These specimens aren’t the kind of thing you normally encounter in a public natural history museum display as they aren’t ‘perfect’ but I couldn’t resist taking a few extra shots of these whilst documenting them as although they are incomplete and not ‘worthy’ of a spot on display they are still quite hauntingly beautiful.
With missing bones and limbs, scraps of connective tissue, metal armatures supporting and confining these birds and the odd position some of this skeletons have drooped into make these partial, stained and incomplete skeletons look more animated than the usual ‘pristine’ and perfectly posed skeletons you find on display in natural history museums. They remind me of the work by artist Tessa Farmer who uses decomposing animal and insect remains in many of her works.
Specimens like these are of limited use within the museum. The flaws and imperfections means they’re unlikely to be displayed and the incompleteness means that they can’t really be used in our scientific teaching and learning. Is there a place for specimens like these in a museum? Would you like to see more of the ‘flawed’ specimens we have on display? Is a sterilised display of ‘acceptable’ specimens misleading to members of the public? How could these specimens be ‘used’ (aside from this blog post of course)? If you have any thoughts, leave a comment below.
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology