Birds not wanted in hospital!

Readers of this blog will be aware of a growing interest in how museum collections can be used to aid health and wellbeing. The New Light on Old Bones research is pointing to how nature was woven into people’s physical, spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. It suggests that the development of the museums at Blackburn and Rossendale was linked with a love of natural objects and the countryside, and a sense of their health giving powers. Mark Steadman uses the Yardley family archive to illustrate this. All this is set against the background of industrialisation. (As an aside, we need to be wary of creating simple extremes of nature is good and healthy, industry is bad and unhealthy.)

The Yardley family might have been surprised at a story I heard recently. A hospital asked a museum if it could have some natural science objects for display in an oncology clinic waiting area. But they specifically said they didn’t want any birds because birds are commonly considered to be omens of death (they fly on currents of air much like spirits).

In contrast to this caution, gynaecological patients in a UCL hospital have handled an Egyptian fertility amulet with apparently valuable therapeutic effects.

Museums today can take on this relatively new agenda of health and wellbeing at many different levels. Manchester Art Gallery for instance has a wellbeing trail which encourages people to look at works of art which are beautiful or inspiring. Museum collections can also be used to dig down into darker levels of painful experience. The containment of the museum can help people to explore elements of their experience which otherwise remain closed to them. With skilled professional support this can be truly therapeutic.

Museums exhibit aspects of life which are normally hidden or denied – just think of the dead bodies, violence and nudity that they contain. There’s something about the containing nature of a gallery which enables the transgression of boundaries of what is normally acceptable. I suspect there is great potential here for assisting people to explore their own transgressive behaviour.

The key ingredient though is not the objects but the human relationships which make the exploration of disturbing emotions possible.

If birds (and other dead animals, including humans) are welcome in museums, why not in hospitals?  In other words, what is it about a museum which makes the display of remains acceptable?

Myna Trustram




Filed under Meanings

15 responses to “Birds not wanted in hospital!

  1. David Craven

    Congratulations on your first post Myna. That’s all four of the team actively posting now. A brilliant question to muse on too.

    But is it true for all that the association of taxidermy/death/violence and museums is acceptable? I don’t think so, not in my experience. The way in which people respond to taxidermy is very personal but people do generally seem to be at one or other end of a spectrum. If they have thought about it, they love it or hate it. Because we are talking about death, indifference is hard to maintain. There are actually many who would ban the display or remains, human or animal, altogether. They may frame it in terms of ethics, and ethics matter a great deal, but I think it’s also much more deep-seated than that. For some, undoubtedly, taxidermy has associations of mortality.

    Most of us don’t cope that well with reminders of our mortality (is it significant that the people that have issues with taxidermy are adults? Children rarely have such fears) and when we see any remains in a museum, it’s not just a reminder of death. As beautiful as the taxidermy and the mounting may be, it’s death with no frills, death at its most brutal. Not only is the animal dead, it’s become nothing more than an inanimate object. The comforting notions of an afterlife are apparently stripped away*. I think that makes some people uncomfortable in a way they may struggle to articulate.

    In this case, we are not talking about taxidermy generally; we are talking about birds specifically. As a long-time lover of all things feathered, I have no such associations. I see birds and think of the outdoors, of freedom, and that is a very healthy thing. The 2008 government foresight report on mental capital and wellbeing identified five key activities that lead to mental wellbeing, a mental “five-a-day” if you like. The five are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. I think we can argue that all five can be applied to the natural world, including taxidermied birds.

    A mounted bird connects you to nature, to something greater. You notice the beauty of its plumage in a way you may not previously have been able. You learn more about its way of life. You are encouraged to actively go and seek out such birds and see them in this new light. And, hopefully, you are encouraged to give your time to help conserve the environments it needs.

    * Of course, one of our key points in NLOB is that natural history collections actually provide an afterlife. Far from being “nothing more than an inanimate object”, they take on whole new layers of meaning and value.

    • Hiya David,
      a few thoughts relating to your comment:

      “they love it or hate it”
      Is it not more a case of fascinated or repelled, or a combination of both? Take a look at how popular the traveling exhibition ‘Körperwelten’ has become (, who state that “the aim of this exhibition is to educate a wide audience (29 million visitors) about their health and the human body. The Exhibition consists of prepared human bodies. They are now doing a similar exhibition with animals.

      “For some, undoubtedly, taxidermy has associations of mortality”
      And maybe herein lies the potential value of these exhibits?

      “Not only is the animal dead, it has become nothing more than an inanimate object. The comforting notions of an afterlife are apparently stripped away”
      Not sure here. Firstly, taxidermists and museum designers (past and present) have often tried to bring their animals/scenes/dioramas to life, by recreating natural habitats, attributing human characteristics (reminded of a taxidermist in Germany who has animals playing cards in his shop window), or dramatising a situation, even if this is not true to how the animals behave in their natural habitat (some of the displays in the Rossendale Museum for example). Secondly, the presence of a dead body does not need to strip away notions of an afterlife. In many cultures it reminds us of one, and often becoming a central part of funeral and burial traditions. We wondered if the way museums have chosen to display taxidermy through time in some way reflects how each respective society viewed death, the after-life and burial, according to religious, cultural or philosophical tendencies of the time. What is the presentation of choice in museums today, and how does this reflect current perceptions and attitudes towards death, the after-life and burial?

      • David Craven

        I’m sure fascination and repulsion comes into it. But I find the reaction is frequently emotional, love and hate.

        I should also make clear, I don’t think that taxidermy renders an object nothing more than dead, inanimate, and devoid of any afterlife. The point I was making is that this can be the repulsion/revulsion reaction. That negative response comes from a perception of the taxidermied animal as “just a dead thing”.

        As I tried to elaborate later in the comment, for me, the response to taxidermy is very different.

    • We were also wondering about other instances of taxidermy, on Bavarian walls as trophies for example. Instances that don’t seem to fascinate or repel the majority of people who use the space in question. The museum is a place of reflection I suppose, a pub less so. It also reminded me of a project by two Austrian artists who made dog-rugs from stray dogs that were going to be killed anyway. People were disgusted, and eventually somebody stole the exhibit from the gallery to remove it from sight. Sometimes our reactions depend on the type of animal that is displayed and the standing this animal has in our society.

      • David Craven

        I think that’s absolutely true. An animal that is associated with being hunted, killed, eaten, produces a less emotive response than one associated with companionship.

        I seem to recall that studies of butchery sites from 10,000 years ago show the most commonly eaten animal was the horse. But today, a horse is no longer seen as food (in Britain at least), and the very notion of eating one is ‘disgusting’. The way in which we perceive the animal has changed, and therefore our reaction to it changes.

  2. Mark Steadman

    As Myna points out, the idea that museum collections can be used to aid health and wellbeing is a relatively new idea. Nonetheless, NLOB has been revealing something of these ideas within the historical sources. Indeed, Rossendale museum was opened as part of Whitaker Park, Rawtenstall’s first public recreation park, complete with male and female gymnasiums, bandstand, arboretum, and menagerie. Even though the form it took was somewhat different, a similar wellbeing ethos also underpinned the establishment of Blackburn’s museum, as it did in countless towns and cities up and down the country: public museums became ubiquitous to rounded civic wellbeing and progress. Such things do tend to urge us to conclude that latter-day museums, in their endeavour towards a progressive future horizon (a process in which a demarcation with their past seems necessary) seem to forget too readily original aims and practices. Here lies the job of a reflective history.

    The end of the eighteenth century saw large surveys undertaken in industrialising towns that sought to highlight the conditions of the working poor. Often undertaken by medical men, especially Unitarians and Quakers (Joseph Priestley did something along these lines in Leeds). This late eighteenth century activity, perhaps a manifestation of moral consequentialism, was echoed in the nineteenth century by criticisms levied against laissez faire, capitalism, and the conditions of the working poor. This perhaps none more so than in the work of Friedrich Engels who starting with Manchester, toured the slums of the industrial provinces, recording what he discovered as he went — a sort of anti-grand tour. The surveys and the general interest in the conditions of the poor from certain individuals influenced greatly the building of general infirmaries, waterworks, sewers, and public baths. Often the same dynasties that founded and managed such civic enterprises also established the philosophical societies, the mechanics’ institutes, the museums and later the universities. With New Lanark established as an ideal, the rise of socialism and feminism later in the nineteenth century (especially Owenite socialism) brought with it the argument that we are products of our environment; foregrounding as it did the necessity for health, education, and culture, amongst which were philosophies we might now term environmentalism.

    Naturally, it is difficult to avoid anachronism when summarizing these links and forces. Nonetheless, if there is historical evidence to suggest that collections have aided health and wellbeing in the past, I am left wondering just how aware (and how manifest that awareness was) the nineteenth century museum sector was of this particular role. Was health and wellbeing forefront and articulated among the theorists of the day, or was it a phenomenon that passed largely without awareness, only to be detected by the historian blessed with the foreshortening benefit of hindsight? It seems to be one of those cases where we need to turn again to the primary sources and revise our scrutiny of them before we can ascertain the answer accurately.

    • “the idea that museum collections can be used to aid health and wellbeing is a relatively new idea”

      Seeing that the museum in Rossendale was first conceived as part of a recreation facility/park, which also has something to do with notions of health and wellbeing, is this comment referring more specifically with new contemporary research practices connected with medicinal/clinical health and wellbeing?

      Would you say that the concept of museums as we find them today are also a relatively new idea? When do researchers believe that the concept of a museum was born? What phases of development/change did this concept undergo? How is it currently changing?

    • PS. I can imagine the idea of using ‘collections’ to consciously aid health and wellbeing goes back to the roots of civilisation and beyond. Have you had the chance to conduct any research into ancient practices?

  3. Following on from birds in hospitals, how about animals as beer bottles?
    What does this say (despite the price tag) about our society and its attitudes towards natures and its use.

  4. Question: How can looking at a collection of nature in a museum have the same or similar effect (on health/welfare) than collecting the same items in nature?

  5. “if dead animals are accepted in museums, why not in hospitals?”

    An interesting point. Thanks Myna for your post. We agree that there might be great potential here, using a museums collection to stimulate debate and reflection towards a number of stigmatised themes that some people find hard to deal with, in particular the theme of mortality.

  6. (straying a little from the main focus of the post, but still related to the thought process that has emerged!)

    Re: the Rossendale Museum being part of a public recreation park, and that visiting museums was part of the ‘recreation’ of the time.

    We were wondering how much this was down to the novelty of the idea back then. Why was the museum viewed as ‘recreation’, and why was it such a popular form of recreation? Was it that popular? Or was it mainly the new middle/merchant class, and those that wanted to associate themselves with this class that frequented the museum? We also wondered about what was perhaps one key difference between the Rossendale Museum of the past, and the Rossendale Museum of today (and potentially another clue to its popularity and perceived function): Did the museum and its collection appear to be more ‘contemporary’ back then? They may have displayed items (or dreams) that were out of reach, the exotic or the wealthy, but they were still ‘of the time’. A museum of contemporary general interest, a novel idea with contemporary contents. Correct us if we are wrong!

    On a more cynical note, is there any evidence that the creation of museums was also a way of cementing and reinforcing moral standings, values, beliefs, power structures, and hierarchies of the time? I suppose the following answers this question to some degree, “The surveys and the general interest in the conditions of the poor from certain individuals influenced greatly the building of general infirmaries, waterworks, sewers and public baths. Often the same dynasties that founded and managed such civic enterprises also established the philosophical societies the mechanics institutes, the museums and later the universities.”

  7. Continuing on from our earlier comment, and relating to the following excerpts:

    “the NLOB research is pointing to how nature was woven into people’s physical, spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. It suggests that the development of museums at Blackburn and Rossendale was linked to the love of natural objects and the countryside, and a sense of their health giving powers”

    “We need also to remember that the natural sciences were a much more popular and public enterprise than they are today” (earlier post)

    Sorry if we are repeating ourselves here, but when it comes to an apparent amateur preoccupation with the natural sciences during the industrialisation of Rossendale, are we really talking about a widespread phenomena, or a minority interest? To what extent are museums, as a snapshot of social conditions, contexts and values, an extremely imbalanced or selective perspective? What real evidence do we have of widespread interest, beyond what we also see in today’s culture? Museums display a selection of what a selected group of people, often from a relatively narrow section of society, see fit to display. At a time when the museum industry boomed and proliferated (true or false?), were those that founded the museums, and dictated the direction that they took, the same people as those who had an interest in natural history? Was this the new middle class of mill owners, etc? Is this more a matter of what history records? And if it really was a phenomenon that crossed into all sections of society, to what extent was the public interest in natural history museums/collections due to a trend/novelty set and led by the wealthy/powerful? Could the reasons for this apparent interest be different to those assumed?

    We can believe all of the very logical assumptions that are made throughout the blog, but we just wonder if they are as much a reflection on what we are now fascinated by (shown by the fact that this process is taking place), of today’s ideals, values, hopes, etc, as a reflection on what society was interested in at the time such collections and exhibits were put together, and why. Or even that these preoccupations are simply human, and may have always existed to a certain extent within our society since the age of urbanisation. (This is not to say that we don’t think that an individuals connection and relationship with nature isn’t an extremely important issue, or that museums hold the potential for dealing with this in a potentially very rewarding way, we are just wondering about the validity of these assumptions as historical facts.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s