Proteoscope » Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives The Blog of Proteus Gowanus Thu, 12 Nov 2015 16:51:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Brooklyn Bird Lovers Fri, 14 Oct 2011 17:31:55 +0000 Thanks to Proteus Gowanus extending a hand (or rather, wing) to the Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives for the purpose of its “Migration” exhibition series, we couldn’t help but delve a little further into our own history with the topic of migration.  As it turns out, this took a rather literal turn and we didn’t need to look far to discover one particularly affectionate tome in the Natural Sciences departmental report of the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, expounding on the adventures of one particular group: the Bird Lovers Club of Brooklyn.   The club itself took flight in 1907, after a chance encounter with a friendly Cardinal in Central Park inspired its founders to organize bird-watching walks through Prospect Park.  By the time the article in the Quarterly was published in 1916, the club had visited the park 988 times on these missions, recording a total of 159 species of birds.  It is immediately apparent that these excursions were anything but work to those involved:

“Has all this work paid? Some might say that it has not paid, in a money sense, as we have consumed 103 days’ time, if we allow two and one-half hours for each of the 988 trips made, but against this is the pleasure of becoming acquainted with so many of Nature’s happiest creatures and the storing up of much health through the outdoor exercise. We think it has paid many times over.”- Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 100.

Photo documenting some of the birds seen on a Winter Bird Lovers’ walk. Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 104.

In fact, so plentiful were the observations of the Bird Lovers and their knowledge of Brooklyn bird life, that they organized an exhibition

with the help of the Museum’s Librarian from April 15-April 29 of 1916, featuring charts of different birds, models of bird houses and bird feeders, and graphic representations of bird migration, as well as provided several bird-themed lectures to the public.

Installation images from the Bird Lovers Club exhibition, held in the Museum’s rotunda. Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 108.

The exhibition was heavily attended and was such a success that the National Association of Audobon Societies borrowed much of the exhibit for use in the National Educational Exhibit that Summer in New York City.

In reflecting on these Bird Lovers and the dedication they showed their migratory friends, one can’t help but notice a certain paradox in one of their observations. Regarding the Springtime return of birdsong to Prospect Park, the Bird Lovers note that “Few birds are in best voice during migration” (Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 107).  In this respect we would hope that the Proteus Gowanus  Migration exhibition and collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives actually gives voice not only to these creatures specifically, but also to the issues surrounding migration in all its forms and consequences.  We are happy to be a part of this chorus and are confident that our past counterparts, the Bird Lovers, would also chirp their appreciation in this endeavor.

-Emily Atwater, Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives



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Little Exiles Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:14:37 +0000 (from News and Events)

Proteus Gowanus is pleased to announce a Migration collaboration with The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives. The Museum has loaned us a facsimile excerpt of an archive manuscript by Wallace Gold Levison, written in the early 20th C. for a book (never completed) on the early history of the Brooklyn Institute, the Museum’s predecessor. The notes recount a fascinating account of the Institute’s role in importing the English sparrow to Brooklyn in the 1850’s, a tale whose outcome is visible to us every time we go outdoors. —TP

Below is my exploration of the document in three parts: the facimile on display at Proteus, the sites where the sparrows were first released in Brooklyn, and the books on view in the Brooklyn Museum Library Reading Room, collected and put aside as an off-site collaborative project.

For more on the collaboration between The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives and Proteus Gowanus, click here


Part I: The Arrival

The sign on the cocoon read: Ennomos Subsignaria Only.  Once inside, the   congregation of inchworms wriggled close to hear what the Speaker had to say.

“It has started, they are coming by sea.”  A shiver went up and down (and up and down again) through the crowd.

“How many?”  One of the smaller worms called out.

“Two, twenty, two-hundred maybe,” said the Speaker, “no one knows for sure.”

The story of the introduction of the English Sparrow into the Brooklyn ecosystem in the Excerpt of the Source of the English Sparrow, Manuscript and Notes for a History of the Brooklyn Institute, reads like a mystery novel.  It is a murder mystery, as the “little exiles” were brought to Brooklyn to destroy the inchworm, an “obnoxious and offensive worm or caterpillar ‘ennomos subsignaria’ . . . on account of their hanging by webs from the branches and falling in great numbers upon the pavements some streets having rows of beautiful shade trees [that were] made almost impassible for pedestrians.”

In the document, there are several unofficial accounts of the beginnings of the sparrow in Brooklyn, each naming different potential suspects to be the perpetrator of the inchwormicide.  Among the possible actors in this power play of Pest verses Passeridae are several esteemed members of the Brooklyn Institute, the nineteenth century precursor to the Brooklyn Museum.

The accounts detail the names and positions (along with anecdotal details about the gentlemen’s running abilities and dentistry practices) of the individual members who might have been involved in the introduction of the sparrows, including how many sparrows they had brought from England to Brooklyn, where the birds were kept for the winter, and where they were first released.

The Possible Perps:

Col. Nicolas Pike, Director of the Brooklyn Institute 1850-1854

Mr. John McGeorge, Librarian of the Institute, who was said to have had the sparrows brought from England in 1856

Dr. Salmon Skinner, an early member of the British Institute and a leading dentist in Brooklyn, having an office before 1845 at 57 Hicks St. and after 1845 at the corner of Montague Street and Henry Street.

Mr. Thomas S. Woodcock, “a gentleman of much experience in such matters,” purported to have had the sparrows brought to Brooklyn in 1856.

Of all the accounts in the document, it seems that the majority of accounts name Mr. Woodcock as the one to have spearheaded the project of introducing the sparrows to the New World, presumably because of his “expertise” and avianistically empathic name (though the coincidence —that sparrows might have been released into the Brooklyn skies by a “Mr. Woodcock”— does seem a bit too perfect, leaving one to wonder if the gentleman described here was, in fact, a flock of sparrows and woodcock accomplices dressed in a man’s trench coat).

The numbers and types of birds that may have traveled with the sparrows also differ in the various letters, along with speculations on the grizzly journey the birds underwent traveling over the rough seas, followed by their first Brooklyn winter.

Many of the accounts mention that some of the song birds accompanying the sparrows were intended for the Greenwood Cemetery, where ghostly songs of skylarks, woodlarks, goldfinches, robins, blackbirds, and thrushes can still be heard echoing between the headstones (songs which, according to the expertise of Mr. Woodcock, translate roughly into: If ye can make it here, ye can make it anywhere).

Homesickness and exposure notwithstanding, some of the imported sparrows did indeed survive the passage and the winter, as is evident today.

Meanwhile, back in 1854 (or 1856), the inchworms of Brooklyn braced themselves for the mass liberation of the sparrows soon to come.

(To Be Continued…)

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