Birds of Paradise at Melbourne Museum

26 October, 2012

Blue Bird of Paradise
Blue Bird-of-Paradise, Paradisaea rudolphi
Image: Carl Bento
Source: Australian Museum

A new exhibition showcasing the extraordinary and exotic birds-of-paradise and their unique relationship with Papua New Guinea cultures opens at Melbourne Museum on 23 November 2012.

Featuring over 60 spectacular bird specimens native to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and northern Australia, Birds of Paradise explores the evolution of these beautiful feathered birds and their importance to the Papua New Guinea cultures who share their natural habitats.

Photography, film footage and mounted specimens on display show the range of eccentric attributes of birds-of-paradise. Their stunning plumage is the product of a process known as sexual selection; the more attractive the male, the more times he mates with females, and the greater the chance of offspring.

“The famous ‘dancing’ displays of the birds-of-paradise, in which they show off their feathers and colours to best advantage, are aimed squarely at the females who despite their drab looks are picky about their mates,” says Wayne Longmore, Ornithology and Mammalogy Collections Manager, Museum Victoria. “They will select only the strongest or most beautiful for their nest.”

The exhibition closely examines the importance of birds-of-paradise to Papua New Guinea cultures which is illustrated by items from the Australian Museum’s ethnographic collection, such as a magnificent feathered headdress and wigs made of human hair, highlighting their cultural significance today.

“This exhibition is a journey through the different cultures of the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the ways in which birds-of-paradise have come to represent the national identity of the country,” said Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, exhibition co-curator, Australian Museum.

“There has been an ongoing relationship between these birds and the Papua New Guinea people for over 40,000 years. The significant role the birds play can be seen in the way they have influenced ceremonial life through songs, dances, rituals, decoration, spirituality and behaviour of many cultures.”

Fascination with these beautiful birds eventually spilled into Europe, with the insatiable appetite for millinery plumes seeing an estimated 80,000 skins exported from the island of New Guinea between 1904 and 1908 and 150,000 birds sold at London auctions.

Trading bans instituted during the first half of the 20th century almost certainly saved many species. Illegal trading of the birds continues today, however, while land use pressures such as mining, logging and population growth present ongoing challenges to the preservation of the land and these unique birds.

Birds of Paradise is an exhibition developed and toured by the Australian Museum.

Birds of Paradise
Melbourne Museum
23 November 2012 to 3 February 2013
Included with Museum entry (adults $10, children and concessions free)

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