Saturday, January 31, 2009


Last June I was asked to join a team to put together a new exhibit at the Museum. We have an extensive collection of specimens that goes back over 150 years and we wanted to give visitors to the Museum a sample of these huge collections. It was decided that we would do a bird exhibit and I was charged with deciding how to present them and then select the specimens. As Chicago is such a hot spot on the migratory route for hundreds of bird species that seemed like a fairly obvious choice for the theme of the exhibit. I then divided the birds by habitat, woodland, grassland and water with a final section showing birds that have adapted successfully to city life.

Once I had selected all the specimens, our excellent Collections team then took on the very long and detailed task of condition reporting, repairing (if needed) and cleaning all the specimens for display. In the mean time I wrote a descriptive piece for each bird (all 102 of them!) and members of the exhibits team worked on putting together the display case. Within each habitat we had to decide how the birds would be arranged. This was done initially by drawing rough outlines of all the birds on foam core and juggling them around until they looked right. We then tacked the foam core onto a false back, inside the display case and punched through a hole where each species would be located and wrote the name of the bird beside it. The false back had a layer of brown paper over it so that we could make notes about how the bird was to be attached etc. We then finally started to attach each specimen to the false back, inside the case.

This was a very important part of the process because despite all the prep' work, you never really know until you have the actual specimen in place, how it is going to look in relation to all the others. And believe me we did a lot of switching around at this stage!

As you can see, we didn't have much space to work in inside the case!

When we had screwed, drilled or hooked all the specimens in place we then had to take them all down again - This was a false back remember! The brown paper was removed and kept as a template and the real backdrop was put in.

We could now work from the template, putting all the specimens on to the real back drop - no room for errors in this process, once a hole was drilled there was no changing our minds!

This was the really rewarding part of the process. We often worked late into the night but none of us seemed to mind as we were actually seeing our new exhibit taking shape before our eyes.

Finally we had every bird in place, we then put in all the labels, closed up the case and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
In front of the case we have two screens, one has a touchscreen which allows you to see a close-up photograph, read my descriptive piece, hear the call, and see video of each of the species inside the case. The other screen talks about migration, how you can get involved with birds (voice over done by me, so someone has already commented that it sounds very BBC!!) and also shows the different habitats and places you can visit nearby to see these birds.

At the side of the case we have a big map showing the area commonly referred to as the Mississippi Flyway and talking about bird migration in general and in particular in relation to Chicago.

And so, as they say, 'our work here is done.' I hope many people will get a great deal of pleasure from this new exhibit and hopefully learn more about their avian neighbours too.
The one thing I take away from this project is the confirmation of the fact that I have some awesome co-workers. Namely, Dawn, Amber and Steve from our collections department who toiled away long and hard to get all the specimens on display, Brian, our IT wizard who's endless patience with my utter lack of technical knowledge when putting together all the video pieces must have nearly driven him crazy! And also to Kerri the project manager who had the unenviable task of keeping us all on target and up to deadlines - something akin to herding cats! I have a huge feeling of pleasure every time I walk past this exhibit - I guess that is what is known as job satisfaction :)

Photo Credits - CJT


Anonymous said...

Oh Celeste..what an undertaking!!! But it looks fantastic and I could just see a class of school students coming and being able to see the birds and to learn more about them. I would love to have had a place like that to have taken my students too. Hopefully visitors will realize that there is much to be enjoyed in the avian world...kudos to you and the whole team...Michelle..

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

I will never look at museum displays the same way ever again.
Thanks for explaining and sharing how this one was planned for, organized and created. I must admit I am very impressed. The specimens are stellar and well done, the entire collection is phenominal. I wish I could hear your BBC voice-over, though. hehe


word verif: 'intaxi'
someone visiting a taxidermist? hehe

rsobczak said...

It's nice to see the product when it all comes together, and know that so many others benefit or are influenced by the work.

gtyyup said...

It's a beautiful exhibit!! I'm not surprised how much work went into making it look aesthetically pleasing...but, I never knew how the process went. Y'all did a great job.

Celeste said...

Ramblingwoods - It was a big undertaking and I must admit that sometimes it felt as if it would never be finished but now it is done, it is a great feeling. I hope you are right about people learning from it.

Laughing Orca Ranch - Lisa, the BBC comment did make me laugh I must admit, I hadn't really thought about it until the comment was made!
Nice 'intaxi' comment!!! :)

rsobczak - There is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing the end result, that is for sure.

Gtyyup - Thanks! It was a long job but well worth the effort in the end.