The Wonder of Birds
Because of their high visibility, colourfulness, varied songs and ability to fly, birds have always provided a fascinating subject for study and contemplation. This unique and pioneering exhibition mounted by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is an imaginative attempt to document our complex and special relationship with birds through art, taxidermy and photography.
The curators have brought together an amazing range of beautiful objects and illustrations that provide an insight into the multi-faceted ways birds have impacted on our lives throughout history. It is also accompanied by a lusciously illustrated catalogue with introductory text by BBC naturalist Chris Packham. Don’t be misled that this is only of interest to bird fanatics; there is something for everyone, young and old.
The Wonder of Birds explores the cultural impact of birds upon humankind. Eliciting a wide range of emotions from awe to fear, pleasure to cruelty, birds have intrigued humanity since the earliest of times. With loans from local and national collections, this exhibition spans the centuries and include some 220 works by major artists and illustrators, natural history, archaeology, fashion and social history.
A 19th century feather pellerine coat and a hat made entirely of feathers, reminds us of how the Victorians shot many birds almost to extinction in order to harvest their feathers. A delicate Indian painting of Tibetan cranes, to a robust bronze British-Romano duck cup, examples of the taxidermist’s skills to some of the best works by contemporary bird artists and photographers provide an overview of how differently birds have been visualised and portrayed throughout history.
The exhibition comprises six sections, each highlighting a different aspect of birds, their meanings and our relationships with them: what is a bird, introducing the exotic, migrants and ocean travellers, birds and landscape, predators and prey, the realms of the spirit, but it is impossible to enumerate all aspects of this monumental exhibition.
The show begins by introducing the visitor to the breadth of this fascinating subject: what is a bird; what do they mean to us; how have we studied, portrayed, preserved, endangered and used them? This section features Hans Holbein’s stunning Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, back in Norfolk for the first time since its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1992. This work is complemented by another beautiful Renaissance work of art, an exquisite 15th century drawing by Andrea Mantegna, portraying a bird from the artist’s imagination, illustrating how birds have been used decoratively and heraldically through the ages.
Predators and Prey examines the traditional symbolism of the eagle, from kingship to fascism, exemplified by a darkly humorous Russian propaganda poster from the Scond World War, in which the fascist eagle is demoted to crow by the act of being strangled by a Russian soldier.
Birds are also closely associated with our ideas of place and as such may be strongly connected with local identities. This is especially true in East Anglia, which boasts a wealth of wetland and other habitats of worldwide importance housing unique groups of species. In addition, birds are also closely linked with the sea, travel, distance and migration. Some birds travel phenomenal distances annually and the section on Migrants and Ocean Travellers examines the seasonal behaviour which may take migrating birds from Norfolk to the Arctic, Africa or South America.
The Realms of the Spirit, the final section, illustrates how songbirds and their relatives have symbolised the idea of an immortal soul, been seen as heralds of the seasons, messengers from heaven, or as magical beings. Major loans include a gold Colombian shaman’s necklace portraying half-human, half-bird figures. This work was a star exhibit in the recent British Museum show Beyond El Dorado.
If you are anywhere near Norwich over the coming months, don’t fail to visit this exhibition - you won’t be disappointed.
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
The Wonder of Birds 24 May to 14 September 2014