Friday, 1 February 2013

On Looking at the Hummingbird Case

Kate Foster and Merle Patchett, January 2013

Image: The Rotating Hummingbird Display in the Royal Alberta Museum sketch by Kate Foster © 2012

The Royal Alberta Museum of Canada recently installed a new display case to showcase the iridescent colouration of eight of the museum’s hummingbird cabinet skins. Using a rotating mechanism and overhead lighting the display case generates flashes of the birds’ iridescence, mimicking what they do in life to attract a mate. This sparked a new piece of work by Kate Foster, commissioned by curator Merle Patchett to accompany Fashioning Feathers the exhibition the hummingbird cabinet was made for.

As Merle comments in the exhibition, hummingbirds have evolved exquisite iridescent plumage that is among the showiest of all birds. Iridescent colours are by definition highly directional and changes in viewing angle can dramatically alter their hue and intensity. When alive, hummingbirds use the directionality of their iridescence to produce rapid flashes of colour in order to communicate with each other and attract mates. Unfortunately for the birds their shimmering attire has also attracted unintended human suitors in the form of cabinet collectors and plumage merchants.

Hummingbird skins were exported in staggering quantities from Central and Southern America to North America and Europe during the international ‘plume boom’. In London in 1888 for example, 12000 hummingbirds were sold in a single month. They were used to decorate ladies' hats and clothes, and to manufacture feather pictures, ornaments and artificial flowers. They also became mounted specimens, and the collection of hummingbirds was even promoted as a suitable hobby for ladies - ‘quite the thing for all those who have money, taste and leisure’ (Adolphe Boucard).

“1600 HUMMINGBIRD SKINS AT 2 CENTS EACH. Part of Lot Purchased by the Zoological Society at the Regular Quarterly London Millinery Feather Sale, August, 1912.” Image and caption from W. T. Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wildlife, 1913.

To consider how to respond, Kate Foster reviewed the various settings in which she could encounter hummingbirds. Living in Scotland, the nearest place she could see them was at London Zoo. These live specimens’ need for both sugared water and fruit-flies to survive gave the hothouse an earthy scent.

Kate looked at a video where tiny and delicate hummingbirds were ringed in Ecuador by a biologist from Glasgow University; she saw pictures of them atop hats; and drew as she watched a video of a live Ruby Topaz Hummingbird flashing its iridescence.

These different settings made her think about how hummingbirds have been placed historically and contemporarily, how people marvel at their flight and colour, how we force them to move, and how they persevere as they can.

Sketches of Amazilia hummingbirds © Kate Foster 2012

Naturally, Kate had to visit the Hummingbird Cabinet in the Natural History Museum of London, which has a well-known array of two-hundred year old birds.
As Judith Pascoe notes:

"No sounds emerge from their thousands of beaks, but these birds provide mute testimony to their collectors' insatiable longings, romantic desires fueled by the impossibility of fulfillment. The hummingbirds have staved off death with their arsenic-laden stuffing and survived to epitomize the romantic pursuit of perfect and permanent beauty." (Judith Pascoe, The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors, 2005, p.52.)

When Kate went to the London Natural History Museum, she found she was not the only person craning her neck to peer into the Hummingbird Cabinet:

These minute two-hundred-year-old birds attracted great curiousity, arranged as they are on display with alert crests and flashes of surviving iridescence.  Some of the birds may now be extinct but here you can see a stilled collection on a ‘tree, complete with tiny nests with nestlings. I began to take note of other people’s reactions - which sometimes resonated with my own thoughts and also took me by surprise. The display case seemed to stop people in their tracks, and their comments ranged from the very practical “couldn’t make a sandwich from that, couldya?’” to an awed “superbe”.

Photo of Hummingbird Cabinet by Kate Foster

Looking at the Hummingbird Cabinet is the resulting artist’s book, consisting of drawings annotated by viewers' responses.

In their respective work on hummingbirds, Merle and Kate reflected that despite all human attempts to ensnare, collect and contain hummingbirds in the realms of human culture, they ultimately remain beyond our grasp. Hummingbirds’ display of iridescence, whether in life or enforced in the museum setting, is not for us: since we cannot see in ultraviolet we can never fully know what it is that the courting couple can see.

Our thanks to Gary M. Erickson, Assistant Curator of Ornithology, Royal Alberta Museum.

Text © Kate Foster and Merle Patchett 2013.

Image: page from Looking at the Hummingbird Cabinet, Kate Foster ©2012
Image: detail of ‘The Iridescence of a Ruby Topaz Hummingbird’ Kate Foster © 2012