The Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens present The Lost Bird Project, an exhibition by artist Todd McGrain, open through May 2015. This project recognizes the tragedy of modern extinction by immortalizing North American birds that have been driven to extinction. It features large-scale bronze sculptures of the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck, the great auk, the heath hen, and the passenger pigeon. Four of the sculptures are located in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, a 4.2-acre public rooftop garden between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue. The fifth sculpture, the passenger pigeon, is in the Urban Habitat Garden at the National Museum of Natural History. This post is written by Todd McGrain, Author, Sculptor, and Creative Director of The Lost Bird Project. Hear Todd speak at our free event on November 20th!
The passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck, the great auk, and the heath hen: each of these North American birds was distinct, unique in character and lifecycle. Each had a particular relationship to the complex and shifting habitat to which it belonged. What they came to share was the tragedy of extinction. As time passes, they slip further into a darkening past, beyond the reach of memory.
It is from direct experience that we learn to identify the birds around us. We begin with careful observations: size, shape, color, telltale behaviors and distinctive calls. Our field guides help us organize these observations. Through this combination of observation and systematic categorization, we learn to recognize each new bird and hold it in our memory. But how can we come to know a bird we can never see?
My relationship with the Lost Birds began by gingerly pressing a fist full of clay into the shape of a small preening duck. My initial efforts to find an appropriate sculptural form for the Labrador duck were hampered by a lack of knowledge of this bird’s true proportions. I shortly found myself leaning over trays of preserved specimens in the back rooms of natural history museums from California to Newfoundland studying each of the extinct birds of North America that would become the Lost Bird memorials.
I soon felt compelled to travel to the sites where the last of these fives species were seen in the wild. With me on these adventures was my brother-in-law and friend, Andrew Stern. A neurologist by profession, Andy’s intellectual agility, forward-moving energy, and good humor made him the perfect partner. His reflections on the nature of our task cast a light of understanding over all our experiences, and I am grateful for his enthusiastic and thoughtful companionship. It was in conversation with Andy that my commitment to place the memorial sculptures permanently at sites directly related to the birds’ decline first came into focus. Together we realized that my work would not be complete and that the sculptures would not mean what I intended until they were installed at those places haunted by what is missing.
Finding the most suitable location for each memorial meant identifying sites with pertinent historic significance. In some cases this meant simply locating the documented sites where the last wild birds were shot. When the history was not so definitive, a different kind of compass was needed, and we had to find places that seemed to call for the birds. I looked for sites that resonated with absence. Not that a sculpture can ever fill such a void. The memorials can only point to what is missing – to remind us of what we are not seeing – so that we may simultaneously feel the absence and presence of these lost birds.
In my efforts to place the sculptures, I was also hoping to find sites where a memorial could point to some of the positive work currently underway to prevent further species loss. This second criterion, it turned out, was not nearly so hard to satisfy. Everywhere we went we met scientists and activists committed to preventing further extinction. Though their tasks at times looked daunting, their disciplined efforts were a constant inspiration. How often I have learned that stories of loss and sorrow find new meaning and purpose when related by a storyteller charged with hope, conviction, and the willingness to dedicate his or her life to creating positive, lasting change.
Placing finished sculptures at the site significant to the memory of a bird ended the first phase of The Lost Bird Project. The next challenge was to cast an edition of the sculptures that would act as traveling memorials. This second casting is the edition that is currently on display in the Smithsonian Gardens.
This exhibition marks a true milestone for the project. Washington, D.C. is a truly unique tourist destination. Visitors flock to D.C. to learn about this nation’s heritage with itineraries that include science, history, and art. It is the array of museum experiences offered by the Smithsonian complex that make this cross-disciplinary inquiry possible. This breadth of interests also makes the D.C. visitor the ideal audience for The Lost Bird Project, as the memorials invite a complex and layered interpretation.
Over the past month I have made several trips to visit the Lost Bird memorials currently installed at the Smithsonian. I am inspired to see them viewed, photographed, and enjoyed by so many visitors. My hope is that those who encounter these memorials experience something similar to what occurs when one sees an unfamiliar bird: a heightened awareness of stirred curiosity. The Lost Bird memorials are an invitation to explore a part of our natural heritage and to join the effort to help fend off the callousness of forgetting. The Smithsonian Gardens are the ideal site for this thoughtful reflection. I am grateful to Susan Frampton of the Smithsonian Libraries for initiating and supporting this exhibition and to Barbara Faust and everyone at Smithsonian Gardens for their openness and support.
The Smithsonian Libraries will screen The Lost Bird Project documentary at the National Museum of Natural History Nov. 20. It tells the story of the five bird species and follows McGrain’s efforts to install his sculptures in locations where the birds were last seen. The film showing is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a brief talk by the artist and a book signing. For more information, visit library.si.edu/events/upcoming. Read more about The Lost Bird Project at lostbirdproject.org.