As artist in residence at the Canadian Museum of Nature, I have been lucky enough to have access to one of the world’s finest collections of natural-history specimens. Although many amazing things are on display at the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in downtown Ottawa, the objects exhibited there are merely the tip of the iceberg.
The museum is also responsible for safeguarding Canada’s natural-history collection. The 10.5 million specimens are housed at the Natural Heritage Building in Gatineau, Quebec.
My favourite part of the collection is the ornithology room. It is an enormous storage space, filled with row upon row of locked grey metal cabinets that reveal nothing of the treasures contained inside. However, if one is very fortunate, and the collection manager opens the cabinet doors for you, unexpectedly beautiful things are revealed.
I was already aware that the museum owned thousands of study skins—the preserved skins of birds, their feet bound and tagged with their collection information. Some of these specimens are more than a hundred years old, yet their colours remain vibrant.
What I did not know about was an historical collection of taxidermy mounts. After looking through many cabinets and taking photographs of ducks, birds of prey, and various exotic species, I came upon an exquisite collection of tiny songbirds stuffed and mounted on peculiar decorative bases encrusted with paint and glitter.
I learned that these were part of a private collection of 600 mounts that had been donated in 1978 by the widow of amateur naturalist Alfred Bourguignon. I found them fascinating because they were so unlike the other specimens in the museum collection.
With their vivid colours and elaborate bases, the songbirds in the Bourguignon Collection reminded me of collectible porcelain figurines. They became the inspiration behind a small installation of objects that can be viewed in my exhibition Unrequited Death at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
In each of four display cases, I decided to place specimens of the same five species of birds, shown in different forms: the Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), the Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator), the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), and the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea).
The first case holds study skins, which have their collection information attached and are used for scientific research. The second case contains taxidermy mounts, which do not require collection information and are used not for scientific research but for educational purposes. The third case exhibits specimens taken from the Bourguignon Collection. These birds have some collection information attached, and speak to an earlier era of collecting that combined the decorative and the scientific. The final case contains porcelain figurines, which recall the universal desire to collect objects that may be deemed significant to no one but ourselves.
Viewed together, these objects provide a commentary on the ways that nature is represented in the different types of collections that we make as a culture.