Curator's Choice: Dr Merle Patchett on taxidermy and the 19th century bird plume boom

By Ben Miller | 05 August 2014

Curator’s Choice: Dr Merle Patchett on the extraordinary histories of birds portrayed by taxidermy installation The Plume Boom Chorus at the Horniman this weekend

A photo of three taxidermied birds against a purple background
A Rainbow Lorikeet from The Plume Boom Chorus, which will open for visitor testing at London's Horniman Museum and Gardens© Andriko Lozowy
“Taxidermy is back in fashion. Whether it’s museums, art galleries or designer boutiques, taxidermy animals are making their presence felt.

The taxidermied wings, heads and entire bodies of birds were at the height of fashion in the past.

The Plume Boom Chorus is a unique interactive taxidermy installation which allows visitors to experience this history by bringing to life the extraordinary and unnatural histories of birds hunted for fashion.

During the “plume Boom”, between 1880 and 1914, the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a global scale.

It involved the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world. Birds of all kinds were used for both their feather and bodily appearance.

Colourful and exotic birds like the Hummingbird, Parrot and Bird-of-paradise were enormously popular, but common fowl, such as pigeon, turkey and goose, were also used.

London was the centre of the trade in exotic feathers, and in the periodic monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly feather sales, traders and feather merchants were able to bid for the “skins”, “plumes” and “quills” of the most beautiful and most interesting unprotected birds of the world.

A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer included 6,000 birds of paradise, 40,000 hummingbirds and 360,000 "various" East Indian bird feathers.
 
In addition to viewing incredible period examples of these birds, each visitor to the Horniman installation this weekend will be provided with a small hand-held connected object developed as part of Objects Sandbox, which will allow them to act as curator and collect a host of fascinating digital information about the history of plumage trade.

Visitors will learn, for example, how a growing awareness of the devastating impact the plumage trade was having of living populations of birds led to the formation of the first conservation societies.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK and the Audubon Society in the US worked tirelessly to ban the trade in birds. Their campaigns against “Murderous Millinery” eventually initiated the first wild-bird protection acts.

In 1913 the US passed the Lacey Act, which banned both interstate and international feather imports. And although anti-plumage legislation failed in Britain’s House of Commons in 1908 and again in 1920, Britain finally passed The Plumage Bill in 1921.

That ended the ‘Age of Extermination’ and the possession and displaying feathers became, once again, an avian trait.”

  • The Plume Boom Chorus is being installed for ‘user testing’ at the Horniman Museum on August 9-10. It was collaboratively produced by researchers at the University of Bristol and the multi-disciplinary technology and creation studio, Play Nicely, as part of REACT’s Object Sandbox.

Dr Merle Patchett is a Lecturer in Cultural Geography at the University of Bristol and project partner in REACT Objects. Objects Sandbox is REACT’s latest round of commissions, a four-year programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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