Re-Labeling Birds of Paradise Specimens

Words and Objects: Writing on, around and about things

In a recent conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford entitled “Word and Objects” the objective was to explore the role of words in the documentation, interpretation and presentation of objects-both historically and in the present, and in what such analysis tells us about both explicit and implicit aspects of museum practice.

While some argued that the main point of labels, catalogues and databases was to throw light on original provenance and thus on indigenous purpose and meanings, others emphasized the value of a focus on old labels and texts for studying the lives of objects in museums.

Although not able to attend the conference, when invited to give a Guest Lecture for the Art History 330 course: Practices, Institutions, and Technologies of Display (Created and Instructed by Dr LIz Gomez) at the University of Alberta I set the students the task of re-labeling the three millinery prepared bird of paradise skins form the UACTC that will displayed in the Fashioning Feathers exhibition.

The idea behind the task was to get the students to consider and reflect the relationships, practices and geographies which brought about the birds’ movement from natural habitats in New Guinea, making into millinery ornaments and presence in a clothing and textiles collection in Western Canada through a process of ‘re-labelling’.


To make alternative specimen labels for three millinery prepared bird of paradise skins that reflect the wider relationships, practices and geographies that brought about their presence in a Clothing and Textiles Collection in Alberta, Canada.

The labels are to be displayed alongside the skins in the exhibition.

What is a specimen label?

A “specimen label”, is a label accompanying a zoological specimen, which details at very least: scientific name, sex and location where it was found or killed.

The British Museum’s Guide to Collectors offers instruction:

“It is not usually convenient to label material exhaustively in situ. Labels attached to the container should include the habitat, locality and date, and the collector’s initial, with perhaps a condensation of any other information, which is considered relevant.

Specimen labels should then be written on stiffish, non-absorbent card, either in pencil or in indian ink. Ink labels should be allowed to dry, then steeped for a few minutes in a 3% solution of acetic acid, which effectively sets the ink and prevents “running” if the label is to be placed in preservative.” (The British Museum’s Guide to Collectors, 1895)

Here’s what the students came up with:

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