Saturday, January 5, 2002

In the Museum of Natural History

[A text from the deep-storage archives]The dinosaur skeletons lord it over a room with high ceilings and a mirror placed underneath so you can admire their ribs from the inside. In the back rooms of the museum where one isn’t ordinarily allowed to go are the exhibits for scientific study. For instance the birds. The collection begun over two hundred years ago by Alexander von Humboldt has now grown to contain a good 8000 specimens, many of them in the intriguing form “Balg”—stuffed skin. The original technique of mounting the stuffed birds on wooden stands in lifelike poses was abandoned in the course of the nineteenth century because the perching, posing, pecking birds took up too much storage space. A “Balg,” by contrast can be stored flat, wedged onto a shelf or stacked in a drawer. The “Balg” birds all have identical poses: literally stiffs, they are stretched flat with legs and beaks extended and can easily be lifted up either a stick mounted in the anus or by the beak. This way it's easy to study the feather structure, a guide explains. There are also birds preserved in baths of alcohol, pale chicks curled into a shroud of their own bleached feathers. The bird collection includes Alexander von Humboldt’s own pet parrot, mounted on a platform in a jaunty pose, though he is balding in spots from the strain of too many cameos in traveling exhbitions. His name has been forgotten, but not his favorite sentence, pronounced (legend has it) whenever coffee was served: “Viel Zucker und Milch bitte!”

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