Flights of Fancy

Australian Museum

Australian Museum

The birds displayed here illustrate only a fraction of our Ornithology Collection, which contains birds from all over the world. Some were collected in the 1800s, while others were acquired recently. Although these particular specimens are mounted in life-like poses, the majority of the collection (which is made up of over 100,000 items) is in the form of study skins, skeletons, tissue samples, wings, nests, eggs and specimens in alcohol and formalin. Bird specimens were historically acquired by active collecting; but now we generally acquire them through donations of dead animals by the public or National Parks and Wildlife.

Keeping track of all these specimens and objects is a huge task. Virtually every single item in the Museum’s enormous collections has a label and, usually, a unique registration number. You can see the all-important registration tags attached to these birds, although they’re usually hidden under feathers when the specimens are exhibited.

Registration numbers allow us to track the specimen or object and store information about it. Critical information displayed on the label shows at a glance where, when and by whom it was collected. It may also contain other information about the object or animal that’s not possible to work out once the item is prepared for the collection, for example eye colour, certain body measurements or habitat.

Along with their associated data, the collections are a map of our natural and cultural world through time and space. Each database record is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, adding to the information base about particular species, culture or object, and helping put it into context. All of this information helps us chart the ebb and flow of the natural and cultural world – from mapping the change in composition of Sydney’s bird species since European settlement through to understanding how ancient cultures utilised stone tools.

But what happens if the registration details are removed from the specimen? While we could work out what species each bird is, we couldn’t be certain which exact specimen it is – a big problem if there’s more than one specimen per species in the collection. We can no longer tie a particular specimen with the database registration or pinpoint which part of the puzzle these animals fit into. The specimen would be reduced to a pretty display with little scientific or cultural context – making it almost useless for scientific purposes.

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  • Title: Flights of Fancy
  • Publisher: Australian Museum
  • Rights: Creative Commons