first personSpring 2015
"As I place the bird back in the tray, I see a single feather has come loose. Even these well-preserved specimens will not last forever.”
Objects of Remembering

A veteran educator of Carnegie Museum of Natural History rediscovers that art as well as science informs the reading of the museum’s vast, fascinating, and irreplaceable collections.

By Patrick McShea

Todd McGrain at work on sculptures of extinct birds, inspired by museum collections.
Photo: The Lost Bird Project

What forces reside in tiny, loose feathers? Powerful ones when the feathers are those of the preserved remains of extinct birds.

In 2014, the centennial of the last passenger pigeon’s death, my reading list was dominated by stories of bird extinction. Two such works, Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Christopher Cokinos (2000) and The Lost Bird Project by Todd McGrain (2014), profile not only the decline and demise of the passenger pigeon, but also the parallel fates of other North American birds, including the heath hen, Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, and great auk.

Interestingly, both books also speculate about single, loose feathers encountered in behind-the-scenes visits to museum bird collections— reminders of how a visit to a scientific collection is as much an unforgettable visual experience as an intellectual one.

As an educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I regularly supply regional educators with material from the museum’s teaching collection. I’ve come to rely upon the word “evidence” to explain the importance of museum collections: Each specimen in our scientific collections—whether a bird, salamander, violet, or moth—serves whole and in its parts as evidence to anchor, reinforce, and even occasionally reinterpret biological concepts. Large and well organized collections like ours, the product of more than a century of scientific exploration and study, document life on Earth, and provide evidence for better understanding some of the planet’s most pressing challenges: biodiversity, sustainability, and global climate change, among them. And in the future, the museum’s collections will continue to supply evidence to support or refute other research challenges we can only imagine.

In exploring the topic of bird extinction in modern times, Cokinos and McGrain visited museum collections to discover what preserved physical evidence of the vanished creatures could add to the interpretation of historical descriptions—not unlike the work of our own scientists. Within the collections they viewed, they encountered study skins, a traditional form of specimen preparation that is strikingly different from the glass-eyed taxidermy mounts that populate museum displays. The rigid, cotton-stuffed skins, with simple paper reference tags tied to their scaly feet, lack any pretense of a life-like pose, and are usually arranged breast-up, in parallel rows after parallel rows.

Passenger pigeons from the museum’s collections.
In Hope is the Thing with Feathers, Cokinos describes his encounter with 16 Carolina parakeet study skins during his visit to the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas. As befits a book titled by the opening line of an Emily Dickenson poem, his report of the experience is both sharp-sighted and unconventional.

Those beautiful green bodies against the white tray seem somehow obscene. Then I notice a tiny bit of feather has rubbed off a parakeet, perhaps from my picking the birds up, putting them down (we get used to anything), and I reach my slightly sweaty forefinger out to touch and to retrieve that feathery dust at the bottom of the wide, white drawer. I could take this, I think, I could take this home. I could own this, encase it in Lucite, place it on my desk where I keep round smooth stones from the Bay of Fundy, a chunk of rhyolite from New Mexico’s extinct Capulin Volcano and a polished black trilobite.

After speculating further what it might be like to “talk about it at dinner parties, show it to friends and visitors,” Cokinos decides not to take the feather. He credits the tiny plume and his intense desire to own it with helping him to understand “a collector’s mentality”— a powerfully important perception for a writer commenting meaningfully on conservation issues, past, present, and future.

Conservation, collective memory, and public art are central to The Lost Bird Project, a coffee table book that marries science with art. Author McGrain, who has worked as a sculptor for 30 years, credits Hope is the Thing with Feathers as an inspiration for the creation of his oversized, bronze public memorials to five extinct birds featured in the book. He eventually had these statues permanently installed near the places where the last living wild example of each feathered creature was sighted.





Also in this issue:

Three Rivers Wise  ·  Call of the Wild  ·  Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks  ·  I Can Do That  ·  President's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Stefan Hoffmann  ·  Artistic License: A Wonderful (Still) Life  ·  Science & Nature: Nights at the Museum  ·  Travel Log  ·  The Big Picture