In the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, behind the nature walk on the first floor, is a room full of birds. More precisely, a room full of dead birds stuffed with cotton. It’s a funny way to learn about birds in nature, right? First you kill them, then you preserve them and maybe put them in cute poses for display. What we lose in this process is the sound, the movement, the location of the birds. What we gain, though, shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, we can look at preserved specimens of birds in ways that are usually impossible in nature. Want to get an accurate drawing of the bird’s coloration down to the feather? You can get as close as you want to the specimen. You can also put a whole sequence of birds next to each other, such as a sample of specimens from the same species over a whole continent. That’s a tactile comparison that can’t be found in nature.
In order to learn more about something, we often have to change it first: maybe we take it out of its normal environment, or we freeze an ongoing process. Sometimes we kill and break things, too. Once we’ve changed it, though, we have a new problem. Yes, we can measure things in the altered case that are impossible otherwise, but how do we know these measurements reflect the natural situation? Maybe the data we get by killing the bird and preserving it in the museum are distorted by that very act. The specimen in the museum display is really a complex object, both natural and artificial in subtle ways.
Walking through the hall of birds inextricably demands our imagination. Here is a prop — the preserved specimen — that enables and also threatens your imagination of the living thing. In the wild, you might be lucky to glimpse a bird for a few seconds from the bottom through binoculars. A flash of yellow on its stomach against black wings. What species is it? After careful study of pictures and specimens, you might call to mind several possibilities and fit what you saw to their distinctive patternings. Imagine the bird you saw as similar to the other birds you’ve already got to know — which seems most likely?
On the other hand, there are some things you’ll never learn from a specimen in the museum. What does the bird do when a predator approaches its nest? There was a mother bird nesting outside the north end of the museum this summer that would sit screeching on trees and street lamps and dive-bomb anyone walking past. The mother never actually touched anyone, though, so it was more of a bluff than a real threat. (Which made it pretty funny to watch as unsuspecting people became targets — many never even noticed!) If you spent too much time with the dead specimens, their static character might grow to dominate your thinking about the birds. One can’t see the birds’ behavior in their bodies, only the anatomy that supports it!
What I like best about the hall of birds exhibit is the way the exhibit designers have recognized this gap for our imagination: they have projected black and white profiles of living birds onto the walls and included a soundtrack of birds chirping and singing. The video isn’t a realistic portrait of the birds in the wild — it’s not like watching a nature video on TV. Instead, it’s the living bird as abstract moving art. For me, this fits perfectly in the experience: the bird itself is something we never see in full, and going to the museum is most truly an act of imagination. Here we are reminded about the other aspects of the specimens we see in the cases but the sound and video heightens our imagination instead of replacing it.