A century or more ago there were many avocations which consumed and entertained the masses from a fascination for ferns, crystal gazing and seaweed scrapbooking to floriography and taxidermy.

The latter being an extremely popular hobby among naturalists and curiosity collectors while delighting Victorians of all ages.

The Victorian penchant for mounted taxidermy culminated in household fixtures like the display of exotic bird specimens, usually viewed under hand-blown glass vitrines which were almost as spectacular as the birds themselves.

Other exquisite specimens were used not for their aesthetics, but in museums worldwide for scientific reasons.

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In the zoology collection at the Whangarei Museum are some extraordinary examples of this early pursuit which houses a menagerie of taxidermy including brightly coloured birds of paradise and several skins.

Although the birds of paradise in the museum's collection are not mounted under glass, these superb examples of the taxidermist's art allow us to see these birds at close hand in a naturalistic setting.

Birds of paradise skins.
Birds of paradise skins.

The skins from these tropical feathered creatures are equally remarkable and are a paradigm of three-dimensional still life.

Donated by Gerry Brackenbury in 2014, these specimens were gifted to the donor by R Berridge, who obtained them while working in Papua New Guinea for a Christian organisation during the 1970s.

Europeans first became aware of birds of paradise in the 16th century, after merchants returned from Indonesia with prepared specimens known as 'trade skins'. These skins were presented with wings and feet missing to exaggerate the beauty of the plumes.

As a result, some Europeans thought that the birds occupied an earthly paradise living in perpetual flight. This misconception led to the birds being named the 'birds of paradise'.

The magnificent florescent plumage of these tropical birds excited the admiration of early voyagers and the strange stories related to them aroused the fears of the more superstitious mariners.

Unlike the taxidermy specimens of rare and extinct birds, skins are not particularly life-like and aren't intended to be, instead being research objects, mostly for taxonomic purposes.

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A close up of the feathers from a blue bird of paradise.
A close up of the feathers from a blue bird of paradise.

Their extraordinary beauty, combined with their mysterious lifestyle, meant the birds of paradise were sought after by collectors and ornithologists, who often obtained them through the plume trade, while the natives of Papua New Guinea used the feathers in elaborate head-dresses for ceremonies and traded them as currency.

At the turn of the 19th century, a new breed of scientist began to travel the world to explore the areas indigenous to the subjects they studied.

Accomplished naturalists collected many bird specimens during their travels, meeting the demand for plumage in the fashion industry.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, hats decorated with bird feathers, wings and entire bodies, were fashionable among women living in the cosmopolitan centres.

The brilliant plumes of the birds of paradise were most desirable due to the beauty and luscious texture of their mating plumes, but also because of their comparative rarity.

Although a distant relative of the humble black crow, birds of paradise have always been a great desired item in collections.

Whether in sealed off private tableaux or exhibited in public museums, for anyone handling such birds the rare brilliancy and sumptuous quality of their plumage cannot go unnoticed.

Nor is it hard to imagine why birds of paradise have, for millennia been ornaments, commodities and gifts.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.