Local Ornithologist and Friends Visit the Museum

Have you ever wondered where museums find the label information pertaining to their objects? Is there a mad chemist somewhere carbon dating the collection to determine our artifacts’ age? Maybe stories surrounding our paintings have been passed down through generations of collectors and we’re merely presenting the documentation? Perhaps, our expert staff is so well-versed in aesthetics and culture that we possess a nearly omnipotent understanding of artworks at first glance? While I would like to pretend that the latter is true, in reality there is a large amount of sleuth work that goes into providing our visitors with accurate, scholarly, and interesting facts about our collection. Although the historical lineage of some acquisitions is well documented, many of the objects we encounter lack a definitive provenance. In these situations, it falls upon the dedicated staff of the David Owsley Museum of Art to dig more deeply into the past and fill in the blanks.

The Native American club in question
The Native American club in question.

One such object is a new acquisition of ours: a Native American club purchased at auction by David T. Owsley with no record of tribal affiliations, date made, or specific details about its materials. Through my research into this club’s past, however, I have discovered a wealth of information surrounding Native American history and world view. Along the way I’ve also been able to converse with regional experts from curators at the Eiteljorg to Ball State’s very own Dr. Kamal Islam. Dr. Islam is a professor within the Department of Biology, and an expert on ornithology, wildlife biology and management, and taxonomy. I initially contacted Dr. Islam with the hopes of identifying the feathers attached at the end of our war club, and as a result found an exciting opportunity for collaboration between two seemingly separate departments on campus.

Dr. Islam (left), Director Bob LaFrance (right), and I examine the feathers of a red-tailed hawk
Dr. Islam (left), Director Bob LaFrance (right), and I examine the feathers of a red-tailed hawk.

As an art major and art history minor, it’s safe to say that my knowledge surrounding feather identification is sorely lacking, so I was thrilled when Dr. Islam graciously agreed to help us out. He took the task one step further, however, and asked to bring in taxidermied bird specimen to compare to our feathers first-hand. A few days later, Dr. Islam and his undergraduate assistant, Sarah Fischer, visited us on a cold Thursday morning carrying crates of stuffed birds. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in a completely new experience—never before have I been able to observe so closely the intricate markings of a red-tailed hawk, a prairie grouse, or a ring-necked pheasant. Dr. Islam provided a wealth of information, including several fascinating gems of knowledge from his area of expertise. Did you know, for example, that primary flight feathers of birds are generally asymmetrical, while their secondary feathers are much more symmetrical? The perfect design of their plumage helps give lift and maintain flight. I also learned that under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to pick up and keep most feathers one might encounter in the wild. Even if you find a bird that has died of natural causes, it is illegal to take the carcass without a permit.

The right-necked pheasant, another promising candidate
The right-necked pheasant, another promising candidate.

The identification of these feathers has contributed immensely to our understanding of this particular war club. In Native American craft, there is no distinction between the symbolic and the functional—every addition to an object contributes to its physical, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities equally. For example, an object adorned with a hawk feather is imbued with swiftness, while a bear claw invokes bravery and protection. Therefore, it is important that we pinpoint our club’s materials in order to contextualize its spiritual functionality. Additionally, we can use the migratory patterns of the identified bird species to narrow down the region of origin for this artifact.

Overall, Dr. Islam’s visit was an enriching view into the work going on in Ball State’s Department of Biology, where several taxidermied specimen are kept in a growing collection. It was an important reminder that two areas that might seem vastly separate like biology and art history can still come together for a mutually rewarding experience. We greatly appreciate Dr. Islam’s help in conducting research about our mysterious Native American club, and look forward to future collaborations with him and his students. As for the species of feathers these turned out to be? Well, you’ll just have to visit the museum and read the label to find out!

On a related note, take a look at Sarah Fischer and Dr. Islam’s project, the BSU Dead Bird Society, which investigates bird-window collision mortality rates on campus. Dr. Islam has a permit to gather dead birds, so if you see one lying near a big window, let them know! Fresh specimen aid in their research and are then added to their taxidermy collection for future use.

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