A Feather in One’s Cap: Wildlife Conservation and Conservation of Material Culture

The display of museum bird collections have played a powerful role in raising public awareness of species extinction and habitat destruction. An example is the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds, which was created by Frank Chapman who worked at the American Museum of Natural History from 1888 to 1942 and was its first  curator of birds.   Among other things, Chapman was particularly concerned about environmental conservation and used habitat dioramas as a tool to educate the public. Creating a diorama of Florida’s Pelican Island engaged city dwellers and had an important influence on Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to declare the island the first federal bird reservation in 1903. Then and now, environmental conservation campaigns require awe-inspiring visuals. Chapman utilized a theatrical art form with bright lighting, showcasing birds in their natural habitat. 

This diorama of Florida’s Cuthbert Rookery  in the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds recalls the near extinction of the Great Egret(Ardea alba) due to the 19th- and early 20th-century millinery trade’s demand for the brilliant white plumage, especially the gossamer wisps of feathers. 
Courtesy AMNH

Since 1918, North American birds have been protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and several wildlife organizations monitor and care for their population.[1]The preservation and restoration of dioramas and historic bird mounts as a cultural heritage, guided by Museum ethics and policies, has gained importance due to the dramatic increase of species extinction,. Historic dioramas are disappearing, as stakeholders opt for contemporary displays and dismantle the old ones. The best strategy to protect such collections is to preserve their visual appearance and stunning beauty, but also to inspire people to engage with and reinterpret such collections from artistic, historic, and social points of view. One exceptional artist who is doing that is Mark Dion, a contemporary American artist and supporter of the current research project (developing best practices of feather and bird taxidermy conservation), whose installations are inspired by historic collections and scientific presentations.

[1]Since 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has protected migratory birds – as well as bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs – through the implementation of conventions among the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia (https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php). Some species are protected by additional US statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (1973), the Wild BirdConservation Act (WBCA) (1992), and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) (1940). Global trade of endangered animals andplants,as well asobjects made in part or entirely of such animals and plants, is regulated and monitored by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (1975), an international agreement between 183 countries.

This mixed media installation in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego by artist Mark Dion is called “Landfill.” Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York


Dion’s “Landfill” (1999–2000) incorporates all the aesthetic elements of classical natural history dioramas, from the painted background to the taxidermy seagulls. But unlike historic dioramas which present nature detached from and untouched by humans, “Landfill” diorama displays a waste disposal site withtrash scattered everywhere. Civilization is present in its least admirable form and it addresses the troubled relationship of Western civilizations and nature.

Recommended reading:

Aloi, Giovanni. Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene. Columbia University Press, 2018.

Quinn, Christopher Stephen. Windows on nature. The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. New York: Abrams, 2006

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