The Wonder of Birds

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Words by Billie Jenkins Images curtesy of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Birds are a frequent feature on the favourite animal lists of my favourite types of people – artists, dandies, twenty something girls, and I like to think Lily Allen. Me personally, I dig all over a Magpie, which perfectly combines myth, superstition and story telling, and has the added eerie bonus of being the only non-mammal that can recognise its own reflection. Norwich however does not feature on many favourites list, unless you count favourite fictional local radio DJ lists. However the Norwich Castle Museum’s latest exhibition The Wonder of Birds changes all that, entering the destination into my top summer exhibition list, a (literally) wild card addition more surprising than Costa Rica’s defeat of Italy.

A strange to and forth between beautiful nature and cruel man, the exhibition highlights the struggle between our fascination with birds and the devastation we reap on them  in light of that preoccupation. Hummingbirds, immortalised mid-flight with the help of sawdust and pins, lose the energy you sense their captor desired to preserve. A particularly grim example is the Hannibal Lector of the taxidermy world Fred Ashton. A master in his art he also opted to eat the meat of the animals he stuffed, proclaiming ’I ate body!’ on each mount in pencil. It is an odd sensation to reflect that without the damaging history there could not be the wonderful collection you find yourself nestled amongst, but the museums sympathetic arbitration between the wonder of birds and a troubling social history offers an informed and interesting contribution to the wider debate about our responsibilities to nature. Photographs of ’Swan Pits’, where birds were fattened in cruel conditions for Christmas, obscenely rendered taxidermy, and fad fashion all carry this message home.

A symbol of freedom and beauty, displayed under the shadow of mans misconduct, this exhibition leaves much room for thought between cooing over its content.

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