Hall of Birds

An exhibition reinvention


What: "The Reinvention of the John M. Edson Hall of Birds"

When: 12 pm Thu., Jan. 11

Where: Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St.

Cost: Free


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I hadn’t realized trumpeter swans were exponentially bigger than full-grown bald eagles until I saw one of each hanging out in near proximity to each other at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall the other afternoon.

Determined to soak up the last vestiges of Christmas, my fella and I had dropped by the historic hangout on New Year’s Eve to catch the final day of the annual “Deck the Old City Hall” exhibit. After perusing approximately two dozen artfully festooned Christmas trees that had been spread out on the first and second floor to commemorate the holiday—my favorites included a poultry-themed tree and one created from a giant tumbleweed that had been topped with a cowboy hat—we pressed on to the third floor.

“I haven’t been up here in forever,” my date observed as we paused on the stairwell to take in a stellar view of downtown Bellingham and far beyond. Behind the Mount Baker Theatre, the sun was shining and the tip of Mt. Baker was aglow.

“Well, I have a surprise for you then,” I said. “Since your last visit, the entire ‘John M. Edson Hall of Birds’ has been moved from the cramped Syre Education Center to much more spacious digs. Hundreds of birds were relocated in the move late last winter, and I’ve heard the exhibit is better than ever. Apparently, it was designed in collaboration with the North Cascades Audubon Society, and provides more opportunities to learn about things like migration, conservation success stories, birds in peril and the continued importance of studying the feathered subject matter. Also, there are interactive opportunities galore.”

“You sound like you’re reading from a press release,” he grumbled, but he’s a self-proclaimed “bird guy” and I could see I’d piqued his interest.

When we walked into the renovated third floor, his eyes lit up. From woodpeckers to waterfowl, birds of prey, owls, ravens and far beyond, the expansive display was filled with birds small, large and everything in between. In the old space, the taxidermied birds had been crowded together; here, there was room for everyone to—ahem—spread their wings.

Which brings me back to the aforementioned swan and eagle, who had been placed close enough together that their size difference was notable. A missive near the swan explained the bird had died in 2016 after being electrocuted by a power line in the Skagit Valley, but I’m pretty sure the eagle was part of John M. Edson’s original collection, which he donated to the museum more than 75 years ago as a way to give his winged specimens a permanent home.

When exhibitions director Victoria Blackwell presents “The Reinvention of the John M. Edson Hall of Birds” at a free Museum Advocates presentation at 12pm Thurs., Jan. 11, she’ll likely touch on why Edson’s gift was such an important one, as well as talk about the nuts and bolts of how the exhibition team transformed the exhibit. Members of the North Cascades Audubon Society will also be on hand. They were in on the reinvention, and were critical in developing the narrative and providing information about birds in peril. (They probably also had something to do with the video clips of birds in local habitats available at the exhibits, as well as the audio files of birds that can be heard in our region and other hands-on activities that help bring the animals to life.) 

The collaboration was an effective one, resulting in an engaging and accessible exhibit that viewers of many ages can appreciate.

“I could stay in here forever,” my date said after we’d spent about 30 minutes identifying and listening to our feathered friends. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” I replied. “Plus, I now know why I’ve always been kind of afraid of trumpeter swans. Those things are huge.”

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