Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), Natural History Museum London, 1942-46

Dodo, London 1942-46

When Alice went through the looking glass into Wonderland, she encountered freaks of nature such as a mad hatter and a green-striped cat. She also met a species that had gone extinct long ago when Lewis Carroll published the story in 1865: the dodo, a large flightless bird and native of Mauritius fearless of people. In the seventeenth century, and within only eighty years, this animal had been hunted down by Spanish conquerors, dogs, cats, rats and other species that were introduced to the Indian Ocean island. And there were no cultures of preservation in Early Modern times; the few recorded mounted specimens vanished, too. Today, only a few bones and fragments like the cast of a mummified head and leg survive from this bird. In order to make assumptions about the body shape, often a composite skeleton is assembled from casts of these extremely rare and valuable remains. These armatures, together with fossils and written accounts, are the basis on which guesses about the general appearance of the bird, for instance facial expressions, are being made, similar to reconstructions of dinosaurs or early humans. No one can tell for certain about the texture and colouration of feathers, skin and beak tones; almost nothing is known about behaviour or habitat. The many models of this flightless animal one encounters in museums of natural history in Paris, London, New York or Bergen, despite their differences mostly favour a plump round shape, that looks as if the bird was overfed, with white, light blue or grey feathers, often taken from geese for the main body and ostriches for the tail, a feature that resembles an old-fashioned duster. The facial expression is anthropomorphic and appears as worried or sour.

But one could argue that this scientific special effect lacks imagination: most dodos resemble the seventeenth-century imagery of the bird to be found in depictions of the biblical paradise. These landscapes like the ones of Dutch painter Roeland Savary show a peaceful nature long before the advent of evolutionary theories about a struggle for existence. Instead, God is keeping everything in harmonious order and there is no sign of the man-made extinction to come. It is therefore not a coincidence that models of the dodo became fashionable in the nineteenth century and accompanied the wave of newly founded museums.1 Paradoxically, ruthless colonial exploitation resulted in the need for displays that suggested that the paradise is still intact. As Donna Haraway writes: ‘Once domination is complete, conservation is urgent’.2 An oil painting from 1900 shows how a taxidermist called Terrier surrounded by the museum’s director and a tanner finishes a polychromous plaster model of a – white – dodo in the taxidermy workshop at the Musée d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, ignoring that tonalities from brownish-black to blue and green would be available considering seventeenth century sources. Through public exhibits such as habitat dioramas, museums of the colonial era promised the presentation of a paradisiacal nature, which was conceived as primal, innocent and childlike. In this way, the narrative of colonial superiority was generated, which fetishised the supposedly lost objects of a primitive wilderness, in order to ultimately preserve a white self.3

Interestingly, the model that is housed at the Natural History Museum in London was made during the Second World War; in this context, the dodo is a nostalgic object that promises a peaceful and harmonious past and future, avoiding any reference to the time when it was made or to the history of this institution that was founded in the heyday of British imperialism and trophy culture. Quite on the contrary, today’s audience has been experiencing the dodo as emblem of ecological activism and this animal appears as an icon of extinction. Cute, photogenic and anthropomorphic as it is, the concept of nature this animal stands for is still problematic – a fiction of what has been annihilated is presented to the audience as worthwhile to protect, focusing on an individual instead of the complexity of ecosystems. But there is not one dodo, only many dodos. Hybrid things like models of this bird tell us that we need the most elaborate cultural techniques to put a simulation of unspoilt nature on display: natural history museums are the best places for modern and contemporary art.


Further reading:

Petra Lange-Berndt, Animal Art. Präparierte Tiere in der Kunst (Specimens in Art) 1850-2000, Munich: Silke Schreiber, 2009.

Ibid., ‘The Demise of Trophies: A Short History of Taxidermied Animals in Art’, in Furniture as Trophy, exh. cat., Vienna: Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, 2009, pp. 100-119.

Ibid., ‘Cave Show: Mark Dion’s Sleeping Bear’, in Mark Dion: Den, exh. cat., Norway, forthcoming 2012.


Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) © The Natural History Museum, London


1. During Caroll’s time the dodo was thought to be a mythological creature. Only in 1848, Hugh Edwin Strickland and Alexander Gordon Melville published a book titled The Dodo and Its Kindred; or the History, Affinities, and Osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire, and Other Extinct Birds of the Islands Mauritius, Rodriguez, and Bourbon in which they attempted to make a case for its extinction. With the findings of dodo bones in the Mauritian swamp, the Mare aux Songes, and the reports written about them by George Clarke, government schoolmaster at Mahébourg, from 1865 on, interest in the bird was rekindled.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-36’, in Social Text (USA), no. 2 (1984-85), pp. 20-64, p. 28.

3. See Pauline Wakeham, Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality (Minneapolis, 2008) p. 5, 13.


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Once domination is complete, conservation is urgent.