Dead stuff on display

I had occasion to visit the American Museum of Natural History in NYC today. I almost never go to the city, certainly not without kicking and screaming about it, but I’ve always wanted to see the museum so happily took the opportunity today.

The place was packed solid with visitors, it being a holiday weekend, so with limited time and limited patience for crowds I focused my wanderings in the birdy parts of the museum. I don’t have any other natural history museum experience to compare it with, but my overall impression was sort of lackluster. There are several halls dedicated to birds, be it local to NYC, North American Birds (which holds 99% of all known species), or Birds of the World. The exhibits were very dark and the bird specimens in poor condition and really very creepy-looking! I don’t think this hall of dead birds will be winning us any converts to birdwatching anytime soon. Yuck.

Equally icky was the hall of dead rodents and rabbits; it was vaguely interesting to be able to make size comparisons among the different species of hares and rabbits, but still… yuck!

What did impress me were the habitat dioramas; these also included mounted specimens, but they were presented in somewhat more life-like scenes. Each was backed by beautiful and colorful paintings and included model plants and flowers to mimic the natural habitat of each species. I’ll share just a few pics of my favorites… and do click on these!

Desert birds of SE Arizona


I thought this one was particularly pretty… marsh birds

Birds of the shore… feels like home on a summer day.

14 thoughts on “Dead stuff on display”

  1. I’m not a big fan of museums in general, I suppose because the static nature of the displays doesn’t tend to hold my attention for long periods. However, I do really like dioramas, especially when they’re well done. The Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto had a few dioramas I liked, back in my schoolkid days when we’d visit the museum regularly. I haven’t been there in a while, but last time I was chatting with the curator of birds (who is a birder and so I see out of museum context from time to time), he said dioramas are falling out of favour and are being replaced by clean white-background displays. I don’t know why; I saw a couple of the new displays when I happened to be there for an event, and had to say I liked the old ones better. Fake vegetation would be hard to keep clean of dust, I suppose. The ones in your photos are lovely. Can you imagine the time that goes into making those paintings?

  2. Seabrooke: Hi! I’d imagine those white backgrounds to be pretty boring! I’d much rather be able to get a sense of the bird in it’s habitat – makes it more appealing to non-birders also, I think.

    Susan: Yeah… me too. I think for people who don’t know birds tho, displays like this might be useful if they’re appealing.

  3. I remember the ornithology class I took in college, there was a beautifull, enormous old cabinet with hundreds of wide, flat drawers. In the drawers were thousands of stuffed birds, each in a glass or plastic tube. YUCK! They were lifeless and shaped like torpedos.

    Not my way to learn.

    Happy Easter though!

  4. Oh my. Those diorama are lovely.

    I do share your icky feeling about stuffed specimens. Yet, just yesterday, my brother and I were bemoaning the fact that our mother tossed out Great Grandpa’s stuffed pheasant when they moved 30 years ago.

    (imagine the shape it’d be in if she’d kept it . . . still . . . :0)

  5. I like the marsh birds.
    But no, I don’t care for taxidermy in general. Even when I look at Audubon’s gorgeous pictures, I keep remembering that he killed and stuffed them.

    Happy Easter. and Peace.

  6. I’d prefer the color, too, Laura. The habitat dioramas are much more pleasing to the eye…

    The bird specimens did look dull and icky. Yes, creepy.

  7. I am going to NYC the first week of June for the first time and am trying to narrow down my choices of what to see. This looks great.(I am going with my three daughters and I do believe we will have to split up at times :-O)

  8. Ugh–I’m reading RTP’s Wild America, and throughout, he meets up with a couple of people who are “collecting specimens” of one or another kind of bird. I just cringe and try to read really fast through those parts. Ick. And why are those museums always so dark and creepy?!

  9. I don’t like the look of dead birds but I do look at them anyway.-Those paintings are really nice-2 is my favorite but 1 has some really nice colors.

  10. How interesting that you don’t like to go to NYC. When our daughter was living in Manhattan, I loved going there. She is a super guide to whatever place, plus being an art history person she was our tour guide to the museums I love–art museums.
    I tend to avoid natural history museums, although I’ve been to the one in NYC–mostly to see the sea mammals hall.

  11. Wow–these comments surprise me. Remember the Juice Newton song? “I have never been afraid of muuu-see-uums!”

    There are two important things to remember: the public exhibits aren’t really the museum, and if not for the “real” collections behind the scenes, we birders wouldn’t know much of anything about birds. I wrote an article about this a few years ago (in Birding, I think?), and there is a little snippet about a visit with a workshop group here:

    Get to know museums, and you’ll find them great places for birding!


  12. Lynne: For the sake of study, I can see the benefit of them; how else would one get such a close look? But yeah.. creepy.

    Cathy: Never mind what it would look like, what would you do with it?

    Bobbie: Your comment reminded me of one part of the museum that I missed – the Audubon gallery – darn!

    Monarch: Yeah. 😉

    Mary: They were pretty, yeah.

    Ruth: Oh! There’s lots of neat things to do in the city – enjoy your trip!

    Delia: I think with this one it’s just that it’s so very old, you know? I’ve heard some of the more recent things are a bit brighter.

    Larry: I like the marsh one also.

    KGMom: I’d heard the sea mammals were great, but didn’t have time for that.

    The city is too much for me – too much noise and too many people. Overstimulates me.


    Rick: Hi. Thanks for making that important point that’d escaped me!

    Thanks for the article link, also. Great reading.

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