Posts filed under ‘Exhibits’

The Great Auk

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), now displayed in sculpture on the southeast corner of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was a flightless bird that fell prey to exploitation. A fast and facile swimmer and diver, the auk was characterized by its stubby wings, high-contrast black and white feathers, tall body, clumsy waddle, and large ribbed beak.  It was initially found in dense colonies in the subarctic Atlantic, along the coasts of Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway. But human predation caused its numbers to dwindle over the course of several centuries.

The Great Auk

A hand coloured lithograph of Pinguinus impennis from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London via eol.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, seeking out land only during the spring breeding season. Their breeding sites were limited: the only suitable areas were those with reefs or rocky ledges, where the birds could waddle ashore to lay their eggs.  Because the birds tended to concentrate in a few coastal areas, they were an easy target for hunters. Indeed, they were subjected to large-scale massacres, hunters killing them for their meat, oil, and feathers. The latter were used for clothes and pillows, the comforts of humans and profits of businesses taking precedence over the survival of the bird.

 Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The last two Great auks were killed in 1844, although there were reports of a single bird remaining in 1852. The remains of the last two confirmed birds are preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in Denmark, a sad reminder of the bird’s demise.

The Great auk inspired Ogden Nash’s A Caution to Everybody:

 

          Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.

Consider man, who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens Volunteer

 

November 12, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Carolina Parakeet

The Carolina Parakeet, one of the bird sculptures currently on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was distinguished by its beautiful plumage and its very long tail. Although it was initially found in vast areas of the United States, its numbers began dwindling in the 19th century. The last parakeet was sighted in 1904, and the bird was declared extinct in 1939.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History.

The Carolina Parakeet Sculpture

The Carolina parakeet sculpture in the Enid A. Haupt Garden by artist Todd McGrain.

The Carolina parakeet was found in forested areas and swampy regions of the United States, stretching from the southeastern United States to the Great Plains and west to the Mid-Atlantic region. A small bird, it weighed a mere ten ounces. It was distinguished by its colorful feathers, which ranged from yellow and orange to several shades of green. Due to urbanization, its habitats began to contract in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even in 1831, John James Audubon commented that, along the Mississippi, the number of Carolina parakeets was less than half those that existed a mere fifteen years earlier.

The demise of the parakeet was the result of several trends or causes which operated individually and collectively; these can be summarized as deforestation, decoration, displacement, and disease.

Deforestation robbed the birds of food and nesting sites, thereby killing or displacing many flocks. Moreover, habitat destruction made hunting more effective because it concentrated the birds, making them more vulnerable to hunters. Farmers and those who had small orchards saw the birds as pests. Many parakeets fell prey to hunters trying to protect their crops. When one bird was wounded, it would cry in distress, a call that summoned others of the flock. Entire flocks were shot as the birds rallied around a wounded bird.

Carolina Parakeet by Audubon

Plate 26 of Birds of America (1827-1838) by John James Audubon depicting the Carolina Parrot. (via eol.)

The birds were also vulnerable to tastes in fashion: the parakeet’s beautiful feathers were used to decorate hats. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York noted that, walking around Manhattan, he had spotted feathers from some 40 native species of birds decorating woman’s hats. The feather trade was a lucrative business, with hunters receiving twice the price of gold for an ounce of the coveted plumes. Although Congress enacted legislation to prohibit interstate commerce in certain types of feathers, the laws had too many loopholes to curtail the trade. By 1898 the prevailing fashion had had such an impact that environmentalists and ornithologists attempted to shame women for wearing hats with feathers. One New York Times article titled “Murderous Millinery” stressed that women invited public stigma “by exhibiting themselves . . . in the relics of murdered innocence.” The Audubon Society also urged “bird hat boycotts,” suggesting that women instead wear environmentally-correct “audubonnets” bedecked with ribbons and other non-feathered ornaments.

Another contributory cause of the Carolina parakeets declining numbers may have been the importation of honeybees, which evicted the birds from the cavities in hollow trees where they nested. Finally, some scientists have hypothesized that exotic poultry diseases may have decimated the parakeet population that had survived other threats and were in protected habitats. Whatever the reason or reasons, today Carolina parakeets can be appreciated only in museums and ornithological collections, where they are mounted specimens rather than part of a gregarious flock.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

October 14, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Labrador Duck

Labrador duck sculpture by Todd McGrain

Labrador Duck sculpture by Todd McGrain.

Of the four birds currently on display as sculptures in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Labrador duck is the one about which we know the least. Despite this—or perhaps because of this— the bird has spawned different theories about how it lived and how it eventually became extinct.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

The Labrador duck lived along the east coast of North America, from Canada to the Chesapeake. A small bird, it was a good diver and swimmer. It had a flat, square bill that allowed it to scoop up small fish and shells, on which it lived.

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), USNM 61300. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

Unlike other birds that became extinct because of specific practices or even a single cataclysmic event, the Labrador duck declined for unknown reasons. Its meat did not taste good, so the duck was not hunted widely. Nor was its plumage unique or particularly desirable. There is some speculation that the number of ducks began to decline when their main source of nourishment, a specific mollusk, was depleted by overfishing. Another possibility is that its eggs were widely hunted by predators, thereby reducing the number of birds. The story of the Labrador duck therefore underscores the interconnectedness of the natural world: change in one element can trigger further changes, eventually jeopardizing the existence of unique species.

Interestingly, the extinction of the Labrador duck has inspired both research and whimsy. Biologist Glen Chilton embarked on an 82,000-mile journey to explore the bird’s history, which he captured in his book The Curse of the Labrador Duck  (2009). More recently, A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013), a movie starring Ben Kingsley, centers on a group of teenagers’ quest to find the duck, which they do not think is extinct.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

August 12, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

The Heath Hen

The Enid A. Haupt Garden is a symmetrical, manicured Victorian parterre gracing the Smithsonian Quad. While the design of the garden changes with the seasons, it usually has topiaries or tall urns in each of its four corners. This year, however, the plants have been replaced by four large bronze birds, each one representing an extinct species native to North America.

The birds, the work of artist Todd McGrain, are part of the Lost Bird Project. The project seeks to create awareness of the vulnerability of living things when they are hunted or their habitats are destroyed. The sculpture closest to the southeast corner of the garden  is the heath hen, whose history is closely entwined with that of the areas where it once thrived, from Maine to Virginia.

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

A subspecies of the prairie chicken, the heath hen was considered a culinary treat. Indeed, some have suggested that it was the heath hen rather than the turkey that the Pilgrims consumed during the first Thanksgiving. Because they were a cheap food source, heath hens were hunted and eaten, and their numbers dropped sharply. By 1870, there were none in the US mainland; their dwindling population was confined to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. By the turn of the 20th century, only 100 heath hens were left and the island placed a ban on hunting. This measure, together with the creation of a sanctuary, increased their population to 800 by 1916. But a fire destroyed much of their breeding ground that year, and that, together with a harsh winter, disease, and the rise of predatory birds, once again imperiled the heath hen. By 1927, there were only 13 birds left. The last heath hen, known as Booming Ben for his distinctive and haunting hoot, died in 1932.

Heath Hens

This illustration shows a male and a female heath hen. From Illustrations of the American ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte Prince of Musignano With the addition of numerous recently discovered species and representations of the whole sylvae of North America (1835) by Thomas Brown and illustration by James Turvey. Wikicommons.

McGrain has depicted the hen with an open beak, as if Ben were trying to tell us something. The sculpture was made using the lost-wax method. The bird was first carved in wax, then covered with a ceramic material and baked in an oven. This burned away the wax, leaving a mold in the shape of the bird. The molten bronze was then poured into the mold, after which it hardened and assumed the desired form. The artist has therefore created a memorial to the extinct bird, both honoring the heath hen and reminding us of its extinction, an event that could have been averted with greater environmental knowledge and awareness.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

June 4, 2014 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Lost Bird Project: Modern Extinction

Interning at the Smithsonian Gardens this winter has been an enriching and rewarding experience.  Getting the opportunity to work on so many different projects with so many different people in an intellectually-stimulating environment makes every day exciting and gratifying.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist in The Lost Bird Project’s arrival at the Smithsonian. Sculptor Todd McGrain began The Lost Bird Project to bring awareness to North American birds that have become extinct within the last two centuries. Todd has made five cast-bronze statues to immortalize five extinct birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk. He has traveled across the country installing his statues at locations where the birds were last seen. His statues have also been displayed at various institutions across the country.

Heath Hen sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Heath Hen installed in its new home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden parterre.

Smithsonian Gardens is proud to host Todd’s statues in the Enid A. Haupt Garden located adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The Passenger Pigeon statue will be on display at the Urban Bird Habitat Garden located at the northwest corner of the National Museum of Natural History as a companion piece to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America opening on June 24, 2014. The five sculptures will be on display through March 15, 2015.

Lost Bird Project sculptures

The Lost Bird Project bronze sculptures in situ.

The stories of these birds are tragic and highlights just how fragile nature can be. One-hundred years ago, massive flocks (numbering in the millions) of Passenger Pigeons flew across the Unites States. It was inconceivable at the time that the huge Passenger Pigeon population could become extinct. The birds became a stable food source across the country and as the demand for Passenger Pigeons grew, the birds were hunted to the point of extinction. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.

Carolina Parakeet sculpture by Todd McGrain

Artist Todd McGrain unveils the Carolina Parakeet.

These two exhibits remind us of the importance of understanding how as humans we are intrinsically linked to our environment.  Whether directly or indirectly, humans have a huge influence on our natural world and our every action affects many other organisms. These birds represent just a mere fraction of the species we have lost over the past two centuries. Pollution, excessive hunting and fishing, global warming, habitat loss are all anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the extinction of many species across the globe. By bringing awareness to this issue, we can work towards preventing such extinctions from happening in the future.

 -Tammy Lee, Smithsonian Gardens landscape architecture intern

 

Map of The Lost Bird Project in the Smithsonian gardens.

April 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

The Pyramid in the Garden

"Ala" by El Anatsui

Ala
El Anatsui (1944- ), born in Ghana, based in Nigeria
Earthwork in “Earth Matters”
Site-specific, 2013

As part of its exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, the National Museum of African Art invited several African artists to do earthworks in the Smithsonian’s gardens. These are large sculpture works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. One of these is ”Ala” by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

Ala is the Igbo goddess of earth, and is also associated with morality, fertility, and creativity. Although she is usually depicted as a voluptuous woman, El Anatsui has chosen shape and materials to allude to her powers. The pyramidal shape may be seen as emblematic of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. But for El Anatsui it reflects the ubiquity of mounds of earth in West Africa. There are termite mounds, and mounds may be used to mark the entrance of villages, serving as posts or guardians for those who live there. In addition, there are crops [e.g., yams] that are planted in mounds of earth.

The materials that sheath the pyramid are trade objects that come from the earth. The metal plates are graters made from flattened, repurposed large cans or drums. These are punctured with nails, leaving sharp ridges that are used for grating. These graters are used primarily for processing cassava, which is a staple food that was imported into Africa from Brazil. Cassava — also known by other names such as yuca, garri, manioc, and tapioca— is a very hardy and multi-purpose food which can be prepared in many forms: it can be boiled, fried, mashed into a paste, and ground into a flour-like substance. Depending on how it is cooked and used, cassava can be a main dish, a side dish, dessert, and even bread. Cassava has a long history as a trade object: it was carried on ships going from the western hemisphere to Africa and traded for human lives. It thus served as a kind of currency, with most of the cargo left in Africa. But enough was kept on board to feed those being taken as slaves to the Americas. Cassava therefore has a very mixed legacy: it was both the source of the slaves’ misery and the means of their survival and sustenance.

"Ala" by El Anatsui

“Ala” installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, behind the Smithsonian Castle.

The graters are interspersed with mirrors, which comes from silica and therefore from sand. In more formal terms, mirrors break up the shape, giving what the artist calls ‘buoyancy’ or lightness to the structure. In addition to being trade objects, mirrors are used in transportation to reflect where we’ve come from. For El Anatsui, these mirrors are a visual pun: they allude to the sankofa bird, which twists its neck to look back and is associated with a variety of Asante proverbs and meanings, including the following:
(1) It is never too late to turn around and start on a new path once one has recognized one’s mistake.
(2) Look at your past and you will recognize your future.
(3) You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

Combining different shapes, media, history, and metaphors, El Anatsui has created a tribute to Ala which brings her ‘down to earth’ and makes her accessible to many in a variety of ways.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian docent

December 10, 2013 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

“Hunger” Amidst Plenty

"Hunger" by Ghada Amer

Photograph by Eric Long.

Hunger
Ghada Amer, (1963 – ), born in Egypt, based in New York
Earthwork in “Earth Matters”
Site-specific, 2013

Ghada Amer is one of a selected number of artists invited by the National Museum of African Art to take part in the exhibit Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor by creating an earthwork in the Smithsonian’s gardens. Earthworks are large sculptural works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. Several of these earthworks have been installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the vicinity of the Sackler and African Art Museums.

Amer works in a variety of genres:  painting, sculpture, film, photography, installation. In much of her work she has appropriated two media that are usually associated with domestic arts or “women’s work”: embroidery and gardening. She therefore uses thread and plants to express messages that are highly political, focusing on a range of themes, including gender roles, women’s sexuality, and human rights. In the work currently on display in the Smithsonian Gardens, Amer has chosen the subject of hunger as her topic. She thus highlights a worldwide problem at the same time that she alludes to a specific issue: the fact that politicians in her native Egypt and elsewhere prey on the hungry by promising food in exchange for votes. Bags of rice and other edibles are therefore bartered for political support.

The current earthwork began with the delineation of large letters spelling the word “Hunger” along a strip of land at the north entrance of the Haupt Garden. Once the letters were outlined as furrows, they were planted with rice. The work has therefore evolved through different stages, reflecting the initial carving of the land and the growth of the ‘crops’ growing in the designated space.

Initially, the viewer could read the word “hunger” spelled out in earth. Then, the stenciled letters were filled in with small tufts of rice plants. Over the summer months, the plants grew very noticeably, and the edible rice began to emerge.  This in turn attracted birds, who saw the grain as a bonus meal. As the plants grew and became bushier, the word was ‘hunger’ became less readable. The letters re-emerged once the crop was harvested. In keeping with the original idea of crop rotation, the letters will be planted with kale, which can survive colder temperatures.  During fall and winter, the letters will become greener and denser.

"Hunger" by Ghada Amer.

“Hunger” planted with kale for the winter months.

In “Hunger,” as in some of her other work, Amer combines medium and message, and urges us to read both the ‘writing on the wall’  and the letters on the earth.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian volunteer

November 18, 2013 at 10:00 am 2 comments

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