Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Lengths People Would Go to Gather Bird Droppings

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 29, 2017

To be honest, I don't usually expect an exciting show when I go to the Small Documents Gallery at American History.  Not that the displays can't be interesting, but documents don't generally lend themselves to blockbuster exhibits.  The current display pushes the arcane aspect to the limit, I think.

In the 1800s, people began to use bird droppings (guano) as fertilizer.  Apparently, the stuff is tremendous, increasing yields exponentially.  And if there's money to be made, people will do anything, including sailing to remote islands to gather bird crap and cart it back home to sell.  Which they did.

The centerpiece of the display is the Norie Marine Atlas, which is considered the pinnacle of the printmaker's art, and the only copy in a public collection.  It's quite large (a double elephant folio) and not in the best of condition, but it's impressive nonetheless.  Coastlines were well filled out, but the interiors of South America were largely blank.

Of course, the guano trade ended in the way so many of these stories do: humans stepped in and harvested all of the bird crap (which was 200 feet high to start), destroying the sea birds' habitat in the process.  Sort of like the passenger pigeon, except with droppings.

Verdict: If you skip this, it's okay.  Unless you're interested in 19th century navigation or the history of man's relationship with birds.  Then you should see this.

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