Birds: The Neville Museum’s newest exhibit

Aimee Suzanne Kruse-Ross

aimee suzanne kruse-ross | the neville now | july 2019

Public interest in birding in and around Wisconsin has risen significantly during the past decade, attracting nature-lovers and families to observe and learn about these diverse animals. As Green Bay is home to the largest freshwater estuary in the world, and many migrating and native species choose to spend their time in Green Bay, it's no wonder that it's been designated as an official “Bird City.”

If early morning sighting-walks aren't your thing, or if you simply want to get a closer look at these amazing creatures without fear of spooking them into flight, be sure to enjoy the Neville Public Museum's newest exhibit simply titled “Birds.” The exhibit features more than 200 taxidermy specimens from the Neville's own collection.

“Because we had a significant number of specimens and bird-related art, we were inspired to put them all out together within one exhibit,” says the Neville Museum's James Peth.

Visitors will get a unique look at some familiar and not so familiar specimens and even some specimens that no one will see living again. In the category of the latter are the now-extinct Passenger Pigeons on display and, from the Neville's little-known Egyptian collection, an authentic mummified falcon, complete with original linen wrappings.

Amassing such a collection didn't happen overnight; in fact, the Neville has spent nearly 100 years purchasing, collecting and storing these items. The Neville acquired most of the taxidermy in the 1930s with the bulk of the collection, some 70 pieces, being attributed to the 1929 bequest of early Green Bay resident Marion Peak Mason.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are immediately greeted by custom cabinets housing some of the most diverse and impressive birds within the Neville's collection. The display includes an Indian peacock believed to date to the late 1800s as well as other specimens Wisconsinites won't find at their feeders including the Steller's jay and the motmot.

Also on display are the nests of many species as well as nearly 100 actual bird egg specimens.

“Birds” also features a number of artifacts that express mankind's relationship with the avian creatures with which we share this planet.

“We've not had an exhibit like this before,” says Peth. We wanted to show that dynamic of how people have, for centuries, interacted with birds, how we utilize them and how they've inspired us.”

This interaction has, at times, been benevolent as evidenced by the breathtaking beadwork created by members of the Menominee Nation on display, some of it dating back to the mid-1800s.

At other times, this interaction has been, if not malevolent, then certainly an expression of our ignorance as is the case with the carrier pigeon or the birds brought to near extinction in the name of fashion.

To this end, the exhibit displays an impressive collection of ladies' hats. Such hats kept the feathers of certain birds in high demand. Thankfully, mankind–or maybe we should thank womankind–isn't incapable of noticing its mistakes.

“What's interesting about this is that although men typically ran these industries of bird feather procurement, it's ultimately the women who championed the movement to cease their usage,” says Peth.

This exhibit also caters to young people with a variety of interactive learning stations including those that present a variety of bird songs, and wing-span comparisons. 'Study skins' as Peth calls them, feature a variety of bird beaks, feet, wings and heads to show the elaborate diversity within the bird group. Male and female specimens are also on display to show the differences in sizes and colors that make up the varied spectrum.

“Because you never really get to see these birds and their mates up close, this is the perfect exhibit to showcase these differences,” explains Peth.

Viewers will also find some early Earl Wright film footage digitally developed from long-archived film canisters. Wright was a Green Bay artist, a nature aficionado as well as the Neville Museum's director during the 1950s. His films, which capture various birds native to Green Bay, were the inspiration behind Walt Disney's attempts at creating their own wildlife documentary films.

“Birds” took nearly 18 months of meticulous planning and included painstaking restoration work. As arsenic was often used in taxidermy to prevent insect infestation in years past, great effort was put forth to prepare the Neville's collection for public safety and viewing.

“The majority of our taxidermy collection is from pre-1980s, each specimen needed to be cleaned before it could be put on display,” says Peth.

Wearing both gloves and a mask while working beneath a ventilation hood, each specimen was carefully cleaned to remove not only years of dust and debris but to help preserve and maintain the integrity of the piece for future generations of bird lovers to enjoy.

Bringing this collection out for viewing has also provided the perfect opportunity to utilize technology in order to share the collection with those unable to see it on display in Green Bay.

“What's also great about this exhibit, is that each specimen was photographed and then made available as a resource in an online catalog,” says Peth.

“Birds” runs through August 18. More info at nevillepublicmuseum.org.

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