Birds of a feather

The Te Papa Store has just taken possession of a range of new stock inspired by the museum’s natural history collection. Dead Set is by textile designer Genevieve Packer, and is based on Te Papa’s haunting and strange collection of bird skins.

DEAD SET | KOTARE CUSHION, Digital print on hemp / organic cotton

DEAD SET | KOTARE CUSHION, Digital print on hemp / organic cotton

For the novice, of which I am in the case of natural history, bird skins are collected for research purposes, and are just that – boneless skins, stuffed with a bit of padding and a stick. Te Papa holds multiples of native bird skins. Collected over time and en masse they enable scientists to compare and contrast specimens.
Page from the British Museum's 1970 guide for collectors on preparing bird skins.

Page from the British Museum’s 1970 guide for collectors on preparing bird skins.

Grouped en masse, where difference suddenly comes to the fore, Genevieve Packer saw a design opportunity. She writes:
‘This new range of printed textiles and paper continues to expand on my ongoing interest in how we package and sell our culture and history – not only to foreigners, but to ourselves. It takes native New Zealand birds commonly used on souvenir / gift products – such as the Tui and Pukeko – and presents them in the rarely seen form of ‘skins’ from Te Papa’s bird collection, exposing the care and beauty involved in preserving our natural history.’
DEAD SET | MIROMIRO SCARF, digital print on silk/cotton

DEAD SET | MIROMIRO SCARF, digital print on silk/cotton

The little birds above are tomtits or miromiro, of which there are five different subspecies. Te Papa has 169 miromiro skins plus a few wings and tails. A mix of male and female, adults, immature and juveniles, the oldest specimen was collected on Chatham Island in 1871 and the latest donated from Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (now Zealandia) in 2002.  Today, Te Papa does not actively collect live birds, but we do accept donations of deceased birds from Department of Conservation staff or members of the public.
The bird skins are stored in drawers, arranged very much as you see above. It was an image of drawers upon drawers of colourful bird skins and their keepers at the Smithsonian, that inspired Genevieve to pick up the phone and ring Te Papa. She was put in contact with Gillian Stone who looks after the bird collection, and who soon found herself in the role of stylist. Genevieve worked with Gillian to curate and ‘style’ the drawers – removing any odd or particularly damaged birds, arranging their labels etc and giving consideration to overall composition. They were then photographed under Genevieve’s direction by Te Papa photographer Kate Whitley.
DEAD SET POSTER | PUKEKO, offset print on 170gsm

DEAD SET POSTER | PUKEKO, offset print on 170gsm

Genevieve chose to primarily focus on Pukeko, with their wonderful balletic legs, Miromiro and Kakariki skins, along with the Kotare and Tui. She has produced a range of products from cushion covers and scarves to postcards, that have already provoked quite a reaction.
‘The response has been quite polarising. Some viewers get it and love it. Others not so much! But it has certainly been a conversation starter.’
Bird skins have long been the subject of conversation and debate, especially in regards to the international trade of bird skins, or as it was known ‘plume traffic’.  In New Zealand Victorian ornithologist Walter Buller, from whom the national museum acquired its first collection of bird skins in 1871,  has long been at its centre. The controversial Buller features as the suspect in a Tales from Te Papa episode entitled Who Killed the Huia? and in the exhibition  Buller’s Birds: The art of Keulemans and Buchanan (on at Te Papa until 27 January 2013). The latter features a number of skins collected by Buller, and coincides with a brand new publication from Te Papa Press – Buller’s Birds of New Zealand: The complete work of JG Keulemans.
Buller’s Birds of New Zealand by Geoff Norman

Both Buller’s Birds of New Zealand and Genevieve Packer’s provocative Dead Set collection are available from the Te Papa Store – Christmas gifts perhaps for bird lovers, conversationalists or provocateurs. Whether or not Dead Set is to everyone’s taste, it has been wonderful experience having a designer use our collections as a design resource.

PS: for more on the history of Walter Buller’s collections of New Zealand birds read Sandy Bartle and Alan Tennyson’ in-depth article here.

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