Gould’s Hummingbirds, Natural History Museum, Tring

Gould NHM Agyrtria viridiceps, hummingbird display

The small, octagonal vitrine in the Natural History Museum in Tring’s library is but one of 62 original cases purchased by the British Museum (Natural History) following the death of the famous ornithologist John Gould in 1881, the same year the museum opened its new location in South Kensington. Gould, famed for his exuberant yet precise bird illustrations, had begun studying hummingbirds some 40 years earlier, publishing his important Monograph of the Trochilidae between 1849 and 1861. He displayed his extensive mounted collection of hummingbirds at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park in 1851 on the occasion of the Great Exhibition.

Though today the cases are a bit scruffy and discoloured, the specimens within originally shone like gems against their pseudo-naturalistic settings. Even now, despite the dull shabbiness of some of the eight cases which still survive at the NHM in various states of disrepair, the birds’ iridescent feathers glow as brightly as ever (iridescence is structural and hence unhampered by the passing of time) – an example of nature’s brilliance shining through the manufacture of the tableau. The cases were originally fully gilded, and then subsequently painted over with black – perhaps by the Museum, which was likely responsible for the scientific labels with which they are graced.1 Such sober measures demonstrate a struggle within late-nineteenth-century natural history between aesthetics and taxonomy.

Conventions of displaying hummingbirds, as numerous individual jewel-like objects seemingly detached from their environment, contrast against the more naturalistic habitat dioramas typical for exhibiting other species at the NHM and other museums by the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, they differ significantly from Gould’s illustrations of other birds, which tended to familiarise the specimens’ domestic habits according to Victorian family values.2 The ‘bird groups’ at the NHM similarly positioned birds in cosy familial settings according to bourgeois gender norms.

However, the arrangement of Gould’s hummingbirds is not random or purely aesthetic, but followed the species’ taxonomy – or at least his understanding of it. Gould included naturalistic details such as nests and real and artificial foliage (though not necessarily accurate to the birds’ indigenous environment). Combined with the dramatic poses of the birds, the cases mark an effort to give the impression of life, as within a diorama.3 Meanwhile, the octagonal glass structure of the once-golden vitrines facilitates viewing from every angle. This union of scientific concern and showmanship typifies Gould’s lif e’s work.

That their display and the corresponding discourse positioned hummingbirds as gems is fitting, as the stuffed creatures became common adornments in women’s fashion. According to the scientific literature, hummingbirds were restless, irritable, pugnacious and endowed with a particularly low intellect.4 Such attributes echo beliefs about women in contemporary social evolutionary theory – similarly, beauty was seen as their redeeming quality. However, like other birds, hummingbirds suffered a transgender problem: while their attractiveness and its associations of vanity and shallowness were allegorised in connection to female humans, it was in fact much more common for male birds to display mesmerisingly colourful plumage. This fact was central to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Meanwhile, Darwin’s attribution to birds of aesthetic preferences that matched those of humans presented a trans-species problem for his critics.5 Gould denied any utilitarian purpose behind the beauty of the hummingbirds.6 In his cases’ conglomeration of taxonomy, naturalism and spectacle – not to mention the fact that the vast majority of specimens are male – the conflicts of natural history, evolution and aesthetics in relation to social theories of gender in the late nineteenth century are put on display.

 

Agyrtria viridiceps, hummingbird display © The Natural History Museum, London


 

1 Joanne Cooper, personal conversation, Tring, 29 September 2011.

2 Jonathan Smith, ‘Picturing Sexual Selection: Gender and the Evolution of Ornithological Illustration in Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man’, in Figuring It Out: Science, Gender, and Visual Culture, ed. Anne B. Shteir and Bernard Lightman (Hanover, New Hampshire, 2006), pp. 88, 94-96.

3 Cooper, op. cit.

4 Albert Günther, A Guide to the Gould Collection of Humming-Birds in the British Museum (London: British Museum (Natural History), 1881), p. 5.

5 See Diana Donald, ‘Introduction’, in Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, ed. Diana Donald and Jane Munro (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009), pp. 19-20.

6 John Gould, Monograph of the Trochilidae, cited in Jonathan Smith, ‘Evolutionary Aesthetics and Victorian Visual Culture’, in Donald and Munro, op. cit., p. 241.

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... hummingbirds suffered a transgender problem ...