Behind a secret door and hidden amongst an assortment of furniture in our storeroom, sits a curious tall rectangular object underneath a black canvas covering. A peek beneath reveals a cabinet containing seventy two birds – ducks, sandpipers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. Some sit quietly on the leaf-less branches, others decorate the floor. Every inch is occupied. It instantly stirs the imagination – where do these birds originate from? Who imagined such a scene? How many dusty Victorian living rooms has it passed through? What has nibbled and chewed its way through this Victorian still-life? 

The answer to these questions would require investigation from the Museum’s subject experts in art history, conservation, botany and ornithology to unpack and unpick the origin of this cabinet of curiosity to create a pathway for access and treatment.

The case was originally acquired from the Howick Historical Village in 2006, however there was scant information about its provenance save for a mismatched illustrated diagram. So some detective work was required to inform conservation efforts and enrich our knowledge about this piece of taxidermy. 

Golden age of taxidermy 

The first question the team asked was when and where was this piece created? The late 18th or 19th century was the golden age of taxidermy something that was largely fuelled by the Victorian’s obsession with death. During this time, it was common to find a beloved pet, taken much too soon, to be stuffed and presented in the owner's parlour, or to find a wall mounted with trophies of a successful hunt. Displays of birds were particularly popular in Victorian homes led by Queen Victoria who was known to have amassed a sizable collection. 

Besides hobbyist taxidermy, habitat diorama were also popular during this time. Underpinned by the West’s desire to classify and define the natural world, taxidermied creatures were arranged in a way that replicated the natural environment in what is known as a habitat diaorama. This trend of preserving and re-animated animals formed the foundation for the diorama phenomenon that flourished during the late 19th century in America and Sweden.

The sheer range of species, spanning two continents across North and South America, suggests that instead of a scientific specimen, this cabinet was possibly an ad hoc collection of birds from an avian enthusiast, perhaps of this period. Drawing on this background, it is likely that this diorama can be traced to the late 1800s and possibly constructed in America, or Europe, before finding its way to our shores. 

During the conservation of the case however a piece of 1868 newspaper was uncovered from the cabinet’s back which came from an Auckland publication, The Daily Southern Cross. This shifted the team’s thinking – had this cabinet been imagined and created in Tāmaki Makaurau? 

A 1868 newspaper fragment revealed under tape covering the backboard of the cabinet.

To unravel this mystery, we first drew on the expertise of our Natural History curators – Matt Rayner and Josie Galbraith - who helped to identify this box of birds.  The seventy two birds in the case covered three continents, largely from South and North America.  Only two anomalies existed – a Regent Bowerbird and a Banded Rail - which both originated from Australia/Australasia. 

This American skew of birds strongly suggested that the initial hunch was correct, that in fact this mahogany cabinet came from the United States before being transported to Auckland. After which, the birds were re-arranged, the cabinet was restored, and new local additions were added. 

Our botanists – Ewen Cameron and Yumiko Baba - confirmed this theory as the plant material furnishing the cabinet were species that were native to New Zealand, and were commonly found in the Auckland region.

As a curatorial practise this Museum-wide investigation shows the value of working with subject experts to build a richer picture of an object.  And although a few questions remain, it is serves as an exquisite archetype of Victorian taxidermy and cabinet making.

Caption: As well as containing 72 birds, the cabinet held a number of shrubs local native Auckland species (Pomaderris amoena and Leptecophylla juniperina) and foliage (Parmoterma and Setreocaulon) and a large common lichen species that is found around Auckland.

  • Post by: Grace Lai

    Grace is an Applied Arts and Design Curator at Auckland Museum. In this role, she works to curate,
    develop and care for the Applied Arts and Design collection.