Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution


of an Exhibition

by Louisa Swain

Published on December 28, 2012, Modified on December 28, 2012

  • Description:

    In anticipation of a recent trip home to Washington, DC, my father scoured the local exhibit and museum listings, circling several photography shows that would coincide with my visit. We share a love of photography but within the genre, our interests diverge. I am inclined to spend an afternoon exploring the poetic Parisian world of Eugene Atget, whereas my father is interested in images that display the technical artistry of photography. I wonder who the subjects are or what the story of a place is, while he wonders what f-stop, lens, or camera the artist used. We compromised with a show of aerial photographs of the desert at the National Geographic Museum. Both lovers of David Lean’s film “Lawrence of Arabia,” the show, titled “Desert Air,” seemed as if it would entertain both of us. And despite having lived in DC for over 25 years before moving to Manhattan, I had never visited National Geographic.

    Although “Desert Air” was free, by mistake we found ourselves in possession of tickets to the fee-based exhibits at National Geographic. We stood in front of a darkened corridor leading to what appeared to be a rain forest that beckoned us to explore “Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution.” Two video screens at the entrance invited us to meet the biologist/photographer and ornithologist involved with the exhibit. Nine years ago these two men began a quest to find and document all 39 species of birds of paradise, which are only found from Eastern Australia to New Guinea and the surrounding islands. I was immediately struck by the difference between a scientifically based and an artistically based exhibit. The scientists, not curators or educators, were the driving force behind exploring and documenting the subject. As an art history major and science scaredy cat, I worried that looking at a topic through a scientific lens might not hold my interest. My father was keen to proceed though, so we continued onwards into the darkness.

    Video projections of rain forests scrolled over silk panels and led us deeper into the exhibit. Birdcalls and the sound of rustling leaves welcomed us into an alternate reality. Netting and leaves were strung overhead creating a canopy (and clever disguise for the projectors, speakers and wires!). In contrast to the busy National Geographic lobby, the darkened exhibit was immediately calming. A toddler darted past us mimicking the birdcalls being played. A video display titled “Meet the Birds of Paradise” showed a combination of still photographs and video of each of the 39 species. As we paused to view the display, my father turned to me and said, “It really feels as if [the birds] are welcoming us into the exhibit.” The sights and sounds of our new environment captivated us.

    A few steps later an installation of photographs portrayed 16 different species of birds of paradise and were arranged with simply with wall text. We paused to examine the photographs and admire the detailed plumage of the birds. While stunning in both an artistic and technical sense, the photographs were just a teaser and the heart of the exhibit lay just ahead. The corridor opened out into a large room, arranged in stations that featured and explained different elements of the birds: plumage, mating rituals, habitat, evolution and more. I assumed that my father would find the highly interactive nature of the stations tiresome. Off he went though, touching every button and peering into various cabinets and displays.

    At almost every station, buttons, levers, or drawers were placed at waist level. Children ran freely through spacious room, touching and exploring each element. In one corner, an old-fashioned drawing room had been constructed with display cases, cabinets and drawers. Every element was styled to reflect nineteenth century interests in collecting and to provide examples of the ways these exotic feathers had been incorporated into the everyday fashions of the era. In contrast, on the opposite side of the show, a straw hut had been constructed to illustrate the birds’ significance in tribal cultures. The stylistic differences between these installations were jarring, and I found it a challenge to transition from one to the next.

    Other stations were geared more towards entertainment, such as a video game titled “Dance, Dance Evolution” where visitors could compete to mimic the birds’ gestures and mating dances. However, it felt as if they exhibition team tried to speak to too wide an audience and confused some of their messages. A station titled “Sexual Selection” showed a cartoon that explained the mating process as “survival of the sexiest.” Odd phrasing given the number of children under the age of ten that were there the day we visited. It made me wonder, who was this for? Other elements spoke to a more mature audience, such as the nineteenth century drawing room. While interesting, the installation did not fit aesthetically with the rustic rain forest styling of the other displays. Perhaps it was included to make adult visitors happy? Yet during our 45 minutes in the show I never saw an adult linger for more than a minute or two.

    The show was most successful when it mimicked the conditions the National Geographic explorers experienced in their quest to document all 39 species of the bird, a feat no one had ever attempted. A time-lapse video showed the explorers building a lean-to shed, completely camouflaged, in which they sat for hours every day waiting to photograph different birds. Nearby, a camera with a zoom lens, much like what paparazzi use, was raised three-feet off the ground by a tripod. Both the camera lens and the tripod were covered in a camouflage print and were enclosed in a plexiglass case. The end of lens was pointed towards a video projection concealed on the other side of display case. The visitor put their eye to the viewfinder and could watch the video, which portrayed footage of a forest floor and a bird jumping and flitting through and around the frame. Since visitors could not physically touch the shutter release, a button was installed on the outer wall of the display case that connected to the shutter release. Once pressed, the visitor could see their “photograph” on the camera’s digital image preview. Hunched over, trying to take a photo the right moment, one began to understand the challenges involved in taking a photograph of a constantly moving target, let alone the 39,000 images that the explorers captured during their eight-year endeavor.

    As a whole, the show appealed to a variety of senses: sight, sound, and touch. Capturing all 39 species of birds of paradise over the course of 18 expeditions was clearly an enormous undertaking and the show reflected the ambitious nature of the project. Perhaps challenged by the vast of amount of information to convey, some stations felt sparse and unfinished. And while no one station offered a great deal of information to read, greater emphasis was placed on looking and listening, much as one imagines the National Geographic explorers were required to do. The experience of being the explorer appealed to us and we spent the majority of our time examining and discussing the camera display and watching videos of the explorers at work. We largely ignored other installations such as “Dance, Dance Evolution” but another visitor might be more interested in what it’s like to be a bird. The show also made it was clear that the importance of and interest in the birds had evolved, much the same way the birds themselves had evolved over the last 20 million years. From spiritually important elements of tribal culture to much sought after exotic specimens to the current scientific interest in the birds as something to be studied and protected, birds of paradise are more than just exotically plumed creatures. In the end though, the exhibit did find a way help me experience a bit of life as a bird of paradise. As we left the exhibit an attendant offered paper masks in the shape of birds. My father and I slipped them on, and for just a few moments we fit right in with the specimens on display.

Latest Comments (1)

photography in context

by Kathleen Mclean - December 29, 2012

Louisa, I find it interesting that you were planning to attend a photography exhibition (about photography), and instead, you experienced an exhibition in which the photography was all focused on a very specific purpose. Still about photography, but in the context of the scientists and the birds.

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