Falling Birds sing their stories at the Horniman

A series of X-ray photographs and poetic texts go on display at the Horniman from 19 September 2020 highlighting extinction and the alarming decline in bird species around the world.

The display, Falling Birds, was developed by UK-based artist Helena Hunter during her Artquest Research Residency at the Horniman.

Falling Birds includes artworks that blend larger-than-life X-ray images of extinct and endangered bird specimens from the Horniman’s Natural History collection with fragments of poetic text. These sit alongside taxidermy mounts of birds that Helena worked with during her residency – Passenger Pigeon, Snowy Owl, Kakapo and Huia. X-ray images of the birds are further illuminated on a series of lightboxes as part of the display.

Helena’s work asks us what songs extinct and endangered birds might sing? How might we hear their stories and what their representation in the Museum may hide and reveal? The forensic nature of the artworks make visible internal wire structures inside the taxidermy specimens, which reveal the illusion of the ‘life-like’ birds on display. This alternative view speaks to the process of taxidermy imposed upon the bird by human hands that Helena addresses in her accompanying text. For example, the Kakapo bird’s story begins: ‘I am full of straw, I am full of the rough hands that made me.’

During my residency I spent time writing with extinct and endangered birds in the Natural History collection, photographing X-rays of taxidermy mounts in the conservation department and researching the birds in the Library. The artworks experiment with poetic modes of representation and encounter to create alternative forms of address and interpretation in the museum context. The poems open up questions about natural history, authorship, ethics and gesture towards hidden narratives that are materially entangled in the lives of the birds.’
Helena Hunter, Artist
‘Working alongside our Natural History curators and conservators to investigate the Museum’s collections, conservation practices and procedures, Helena spent her residency behind the scenes encountering many extinct and endangered birds, contemplating their past lives, the reasons behind their decline or eventual extinction, and the links to environmental change and species depletion today. As one in eight of the world’s bird species is now globally threatened with extinction, Helena’s work connects the past to the present and asks us to consider the lessons we might learn from the past, and how we might prevent and reduce further loss and extinction now and in the future. One of the poems Helena wrote during her residency ‘Acts of Reparation’ asks “What do we do with the remains? Forget, or remember more clearly?”’.
Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History

Falling Birds was developed during Helena Hunter’s 2018/19 Artquest Research Residency at the Horniman. Helena is currently working on a pamphlet of poems and performance from the research material she generated during the residency. The display forms part of a wider programme at the Horniman to improve awareness of environmental issues.  Further information on this work and the Horniman’s Climate and Ecology Manifesto.

Falling Birds is on display in the Horniman’s Natural History Gallery from 19 September 2020 to 10 October 2021.

Entry to the Horniman, and to see Helena’s work, is free, however, visitors (including Members) need to pre-book a timed slot via the website to enter the Museum.