I have not really gone in for ‘reviews’ on this blog (of books, papers, abstracts or anything else) with just the odd one slipping in. However, my travels in Mexico have thrown up a couple of things that are worthy of further discussion for various reasons, and the above museum is well worth it. For the few of you whose Spanish is less accomplished than mine, it is the “Museum of Birds”.
The place is located in Saltillo, which was my base in Mexico and is well worth a visit for anyone with a spare hour or two. To protect the exhibits, no photography is allowed inside so I can’t show you much unfortunately. There are some live animals on display as well though (including the swivel-necked hawk) and a series of beautiful stained glass windows, plus an enormous metal eagle sculpture outside.
The museum is small and consists pretty much of glass cases with stuffed birds on display in little dioramas with explanatory labels. It is well laid out and makes great use of the limited space to cram a lot in. It contains representatives of every bird known in Mexico and thus is interesting in it’s own right by including lots of rare species. The taxidermy is generally of a high quality, good and realistic mounts, in natural settings, with some nice behaviours and dramatic moments captured (such as a duck exploding feathers as a falcon goes past and others split to make their escape). Most dioramas are just to cover the wealth of Mexican bird diversity, but there are also those to show off nests, sexual dimorphism, eggs, colour morphs, migrants and more.
What I like about the place is that it actually offers something rather different to a classic natural history museum, and the more I think about it, the more I think it is a nice model that could be copied very effectively elsewhere. In fact since I started this post I have found out that in fact it is part of a theoretical model for further museums in Mexico. The fundamental idea being to have a whole bunch of small, provincial museums dedicated to specific subjects.
A museum of this is size is relatively cheap to build, and certainly cheap to run (all the displays were permanent, no elaborate computers, light shows etc. just good fixed exhibits, no need for tons of staff etc.). This makes it practical to have many of them and it means if you do not have much money, they can be built up one at a time rather than all at once, or one big place.
They are also cheap to enter, even given how cheap things are in general in Mexico, the price was just 10 Pesos (roughly 1 USD, or 0.5 GBP). This is excellent as it makes it very affordable for people to attend, no matter their budget and indeed will encourage them to do so. It was great value for money too as despite its modest size was fully engaging for the two hours I spent there despite the fact that I could not read the signs beyond the name plates.
If you have a bunch of small museums of this nature, they can be well distributed around the country (which is even more important in a large country like Mexico). This gives access to far more people than would normally be able to visit a single large institution a long way (and a considerable expense) away. OK so that is not much help if you only like mammals and live next to the bird museum, but it will give the average person with an interest in natural history a greater opportunity to visit a museum.
For those interested in communicating about science, and not just displaying it, it allows you to get more specific information across. With a visit to a major museum you have to go multiple times or miss large sections to do the place in detail, but that will not happen here. You can slowly introduce many concepts as people move through the exhibits (something done superbly here) and ensure they really learn something, rather than just having time to glance at each case. This especially allows focused visits from schools etc. who can really concentrate on one aspect of biology. Not that others would be ignored – the museum might be bird-centric, but it still covers the basics of ecology, the environment, evolution and behaviour etc. it is just that they are in relation to birds. You might increase the numbers of visitors overall since each museum is easier to reach and more affordable than a large central one.
It allows for dedicated research to take place with a dedicated collection. It might be advisable to keep major collections centrally, but for a bird researcher the place would be a dream job as a curator and an obvious centre for bird (or whatever subject) research. It also allows people to move jobs more easily if they have to move with a spouse for example and yet stay within the same system.
I would not advocate this be used in place of a major national institution that covered every subject in some detail, housed major collections, was a centre for research and so on – that would be a mistake. But combined with smaller institutions, you could cover the country far better for the public and indeed the researchers (and not just the relevant specialists after all, an invert worker from the capital out in Saltillo knows he has a base to work in with a microscope, internet access etc. all to hand).
I would certainly suggest this concept would be better than what you often find which is a single large institute and then a bunch of smaller ones each trying to fulfill the role of a complete natural history museum but with a fraction of the size, budget and expertise. Instead, by focusing on specific subjects (dinosaurs, mountains, reptiles, ecology, plants, the seas, fishes, praries, palaeontology, evolution etc.) you get all of these benefits and none of the drawbacks. With something the size of Mexico or the US, perhaps a series of state museums that covered all of natural history would be prudent, and then back up by these others distributed around the country, but I think the essential idea is sound – certainly the Mexicans seem to have come to the same idea. I certainly think it is worth more thought, and really could be a superb way of organising natural history museums and collections, especially for those countries or states on a limited budget who want to build up slowly.
I can’t help thinking it would be suitable for China where there is a huge number of museums being built, many of which are specialised in dinosaurs, but then try to cover the rest of biology in half a hall, or all dinosaurs rrather then just the lcoal ones at the expense of communicating some real information like how the local fauna was composed, or what the ecology might have been like etc. Without coordination, they all end up doing the same thing, something you see in the UK where every provincial (and admittedly independent) museum tries to cover local history, local natural history, and then the basics of science and art in one building and thus give only token coverage to each of them, and end up duplicating each other.
If nothing else the idea is worthy of serious consideration, and I will be interested to see how the system operates in Mexico once the museums are complete and have had time to settle into operation. That though will be quite a few years from now – most are simply at the planning stage, and as I understand it, the model as a concept has yet to be formally adopted by the government.