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The forgotten exhibit

March 16, 2009

Deep in the bowels of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is a hallway that, no matter how crowded the rest of the building is, feels abandoned. It’s odd really, this is the nation’s premier natural history facility, a temple to the power of evolution and an important outreach tool to bring biological science to the masses. And yet, this hallway on the bottom floor, mere feet from the heavily trafficked cafeteria, was deserted. The exhibit? Old style glass fronted display cases holding the Birds of DC.

Deserted by me too, really. On my previous visits to the Smithsonian I’d always intended to stop by, but in the excitement of touring the big flashy exhibits on the other floors and inevitably losing track of time I’d always leave without going down there. But yesterday, when my wife and I made an impromptu decision to head to the nation’s capital to tour the museums, I decided to make a conscious decision to make time for that which I had previously missed.

The exhibit itself is ridiculously dated, a homage of sorts to museum exhibits past, before the interaction became the hot concept. That’s for good reason, unless you enjoy walking slowly up and down the hallway peering intently through the glass of each display case(and I do incidentally, but I’m hardly the norm in that department), its probably, and sadly, worth skipping.

But sometimes I like looking at dead birds as much as live ones and I have to say, the skins in the exhibit are lovely and professionally done in a way that you’d expect from an institution like the Smithsonian. So many skinned birds in museums show their age; feathers are ruffled, positions are awkward, and eyes are, well, just wrong. But many of these birds look incredibly lifelike, which is saying something.

However, the age of the exhibit is apparent, too, when you take a close look at some of the bird names. Either the Smithsonian isn’t up on the latest AOU name changes (unlikely) or the exhibit is such that making changes is a low priority. It may be, though, the only place in North America where you can still find a Solitary Vireo.

It didn’t take long to get around it, it is after all only a hallway. But it you ever find yourself in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, don’t forget the Birds of DC. If you do miss it though, don’t feel too bad about it, it’s pretty easy to do.

  1. John permalink
    March 16, 2009 8:17 pm

    I’m not sure if I ever went through that exhibit while I lived there. If I go back I’ll have to visit it.

    Keeping the Birds of DC up to date is probably not a high enough priority to spend money on things like changing labels to keep pace with taxonomic changes. Who knows – maybe the Blue-headed Vireo will be Solitary again someday. The AMNH in NYC has a Birds of New York exhibit. I forget how current its species labels were, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a Solitary Vireo there as well.

  2. Vernon permalink
    March 17, 2009 2:03 am

    As a child these old bird displays helped develop my interest in birding. You sort of feel like you must be a scientist just because you made the effort. Newer, flashy displays are amazing, and can really do a great job of stimulating interest in the natural world, but I still have my bias to those dark corners of the museum where the displays look a little like the only people who bother are serious scientists. I am, of course, not a scientist.

  3. Nate permalink
    March 17, 2009 2:53 pm

    @dendroica- You’re probably right. When compared with the other more interactive exhibits, this one appears to be a low priority.

    @Vernon- I too love these sorts of displays. The Field Museum in Chicago does something like this as well, but their bird wing is phenomenal both in examples of species and display value. It definitely hooked me and I highly recommend it.

  4. kim permalink
    March 31, 2009 10:07 pm

    I was in DC last May and when I read about the birds exhibit I made it a point to go. I have to say, I was a little disappointed at the display. But I think that disappointment stemmed from what you and Vernon liked about it. It felt to me like it was forgotten and neglected down in the basement, and it deserved better. I mean, how are you going to get people interested in birds if this is what you show them? It’s good that it’s there for the people who do care (and definitely for the scientific value). But in my ideal world, some sort of effort would have been put in to educate the casual observer (i.e. the people that the birders drag down that hallway with them).

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