The art of extinction in the museum world

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Edwin Herbert Gibson (England, b.1870, d.1949), Untitled (Notornis), 1918?

IN November 1948, Fiordland made headlines around the world.

The cause of this media storm was the discovery of three takahe in the remote Murchison Mountains by an Invercargill doctor, Geoffrey Orbell, and a small team of fellow explorers.

Although takahe had first been brought to the attention of ornithologists as early as 1849 when one was caught by sealers on Resolution Island, the species rarely made public appearances and by the turn of the century they were presumed to be extinct.

Before their rediscovery in 1948, one of the few places you could see a takahe was at the Otago Museum, which was then home to the only mounted specimen in the country.

Three other mounts existed, but these were all in the collections of European museums.

The Otago Museum specimen was acquired in 1898 after the young female was killed by a dog on the shores of Lake Te Anau.

It was subsequently mounted for display by local taxidermist Edwin Jennings under the direction of curator William Benham, and became one of the museum’s prized exhibits.

With so few real specimens available, other museums were faced with the dilemma of how to represent this beautiful native bird in their galleries.

For the Southland Museum the answer came in the form of an oil painting, which it acquired in October 1918.

The painting is the work of Edwin Herbert Gibson (1870-1949), an avid naturalist who had emigrated from his birthplace of Kettering in Northamptonshire, England, in 1909.

Settling in Dunedin with his wife and young daughter, he joined the staff of the Otago Museum as a preparator, working largely with the natural history collection.

Painted during the period when takahe were presumed to be extinct, it is unsurprising Gibson’s portrait of the bird bears a striking resemblance to the mount prepared by Jennings.

In effect a portrait of a portrait, the bird replicates the mount in both its appearance and pose, placing it in a grass-clad landscape with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Today this century old painting is a potent reminder of the takahe’s journey from presumed extinction to protection and recovery.

Although not out of the woods yet, the population has now grown to just more than 300 thanks in large part to the passion and commitment of local individuals and groups dedicated to ensuring that history does not repeat itself.

  • Kimberley Stephenson, Southland Museum & Art Gallery collections manager
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