Saturday, July 29, 2017

Birdsong in the Museum

Kirtland's warbler
The MSU Museum's newest exhibition, Michigan Bird Conservation Stories:Pigeons Past to Plovers Present,” opened yesterday in our Heritage Gallery, just in time for the annual conference of the American Ornithological Society, hosted this year by MSU.

The exhibition has many clever, eye-catching elements. A photo mural on the opening wall invites us into one of Michigan’s beautiful bird sanctuaries, and the whole gallery now feels like a sanctuary, full of unexpected surprises that repay the patient observer.  Against a pale blue evoking the endless sky, we encounter panels on the wide range of local scientific research by faculty and students on birds and their habitats. Swirling lines of dots evoke both graceful lines of bird flight and the busy beach paths of piping plovers.  Overlapping outlines help us understanding the contrasting aerial profiles of cranes and herons.  A Bird Education station allows children to measure their own “wingspans,” to band themselves, and embark on a scavenger hunt for the over fifty birds on display through the whole museum. The skillfully designed vinyl outline of a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)—an important Michigan tree under which endangered Kirtland's warblers build their nests—seems to burst out of the walls.

I'm especially impressed by the imaginative ways in which the exhibition team has integrated scientific and humanistic perspectives on the natural world and our place within it.  The gallery is framed by two mid-nineteenth century literary references to the sounds of birds. We begin with the first stanza of  Emily Dickinson’s beloved poem,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

(I particularly love the hyphenated pause in the fourth line, which nicely reenacts the experience of listening to bird song; just when you think the melody has ceased, it starts right up again.)   Click here for the full poem)

The Dickinson passage is complemented, on the adjacent wall, by Henry David Thoreau’s aural reminiscence of Wellfleet Beach, from Chapter Four of his Cape Cod book,

“If I were required to name a sound the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover.”

For Emily Dickinson, birdsong was the most perfect objective correlative of optimism—for all that sustains us during the darkest tempests of the soul; in turn, for Rachel Carson, the absence of birdsong was the epitome of individual and collective despair. Appropriately, directly across from Dickinson’s poem is a section on Rachel Carson’s 1962 masterpiece,  Silent Spring.  Here we learn of Carson’s reliance on the important research by MSU ornithologist George Wallace on DDT’s evident impact on the campus’ robins.  (In a clever touch, a flying eagle high on the gallery wall looks down directly at Carson’s book, which so revolutionized our understandings of pesticides and environmental stewardship.)

(Read my predecessor Gary Morgan’s reflections on DDT, George Wallace,  and Rachel Carson)

Near the end of the exhibition, we learn about successful efforts to return Trumpeter Swans to Michigan. I couldn’t help but think of another literary work, E.B White’s 1970 classic work of children’s literature, The Trumpet of the Swan, The book contains a passage that I've long regarded as a vital credo for cultural anthropologists like me (and I suspect for ornithologists who study birdsong):

“The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.”

Just as the final touches were being put on the installation, a five year old girl toured the exhibition with her mother. The girl stared hard at a remarkably realistic small diorama of a plover on a tiny patch of beach, and asked us, “So the bird died, but then, it came back to life. How did you do that?” 

The more we thought about, the more profound we realized her question was  The work of museums, after all, is to store collections in a kind of suspended animation, in silence,  in the vaults, and then, from time to time, to bring them back to “life” to be seen and contemplated by our visitors. This is the poetic truth grasped by the Night at the Museum movies, which imagine a universe in which all the museum’s displays  literally come back to life each night. The “magic" of the taxidermist is give us the illusion of Life Returned. That illusion is intensified when these long-stored mounts are brought back into the light of the public gallery, to become the objects of our restless imaginations. 

The girl’s question reminds us of a most interesting paradox at the heart of the museum’s mission. In museums, we necessarily traffic in dead things—- in preserved remains of organisms and in human- made artifacts long since abandoned. We conserve these elements so that may “live” once again. In so doing, we remind ourseleves of our deepest values and foundations— of the ancient web of life to which we are heir, and of the many strands of culture and heritage that have shaped whom we are, and whom we might become. This is why museums, which are manifestly rationalist institutions, are always hedged about with traces of the spiritual and the sacred:  traveling through the museum, we become re-connected with the profound, classical mysteries of Death and the Regeneration of Life.

Thus, the museum’s Heritage Gallery strikes me as a most appropriate setting for telling important stories of environmental conservation, especially of birds, our voluble companions in nearly every possible environment across the globe, whose endlessly diverse songs were surely the inspiration for the invention of human music many thousands of years ago.   In struggling to help bring back bird species from the edge of extinction, we give a gift to ourselves and to our posterity: the enduring promise that we may forever learn to listen, once again, to “the song without the words” and to the sound of hope that sustains us all.

Michigan Bird Conservation Stories: Pigeons Past to Piping Plovers
Heritage Gallery July 27, 2017 - June 30, 2018 


  1. My son Benjamin and I have become attuned to birdsong during nature walks on river trails together. This sounds like an exhibit he and I would both enjoy!