by Mark Carnall, Collections Manager, Life Collections
When is a kiwi not a kiwi? Aside from when it is a fruit, of course. I was prompted to ask myself this question when I received an email from Rod Forder after a visit to the Museum last year. Rod and his wife were visiting from New Zealand on holiday and described the Museum as perfect, with one exception:
Unfortunately I must take issue with one exhibit, the New Zealand Kiwi bird.
It is displayed standing up straight up in the air. This posture is totally wrong for a Kiwi. If you were ever lucky enough see one in real life or on any photo of one, they are always bending down with their beak in the ground searching for food.
Below is an image of the Southern Brown Kiwi taxidermy we have on display and a photo of a living one for reference. As Rod points out, it has been mounted in a very un-kiwi-like pose, resembling a wingless heron or a penguin more than the animal it’s supposed to represent.Why might this be? The reason might be because a lot of early taxidermy, particularly animals new to science from Australia, New Zealand and South America, had never been seen by the taxidermists in Europe who were making these preparations. A quick search on the Internet today will bring up hundreds of images of kiwis in their natural habitat, but in the past taxidermists would have been working from written descriptions, drawings and widely reproduced prints of exotic animals, which themselves may not have been made from life study of the animal.
This specimen was given to the museum in 1934 from the Natural History Museum in London and sadly we don’t have any further information about when this specimen was prepared or who prepared it. But the position almost perfectly matches widely circulated illustrations of the kiwi from the 1830s. Interestingly, in the book A History of the Birds of New Zealand, one of the seminal volumes of New Zealand birds, published in 1873, kiwis are illustrated in much more lifelike positions. Presumably, this specimen must date back to before then.
In particular, older museum preparations of Australasian animals tend to be very oddly shaped, as the strange animals were so unlike the European fauna that it was hard to fathom birds and mammals. This is why you might find rabbit-like kangaroos, dog-like wombats and indeed heron-like kiwis.
However, this example and Rod’s email raise some interesting questions about how we display historically inaccurate animals in the Museum, if at all? Is the history of reconstructing animals as important as the facts we normally present? Is this specimen misleading even if we carefully label it as inaccurate? Should a natural history museum only display accurate specimens, in which case what should we do with the grimacing bats, boss-eyed badgers and podgy armadillos?