Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Of Birds, Babcock, and Our Beginnings

“What’s up with all those birds you have?”

“You got rid of the birds!”

“Do you still have any of those old birds?”

These are comments we hear a lot from visitors and those familiar with the museum of the Natick Historical Society. Taxidermied birds native to this area and from all over the world have been a prominent fixture here for quite some time though it was not always clear as to why. They are at once odd and fascinating, generating continued and varied responses of all sorts over the years. In recent years, the society has deaccessioned many of them, allowing us to keep the best examples while making space for our other collections to be displayed. Throughout this process, we were able to find out a lot more about why NHS began collecting birds in the first place and how our feathered friends are so central in helping us trace how our own history fits within the period as a whole. To answer these questions though, we need to rewind a bit...

Amory and Susan (Bancroft) Babcock surrounded by tokens of their work in natural history
including an owl stuffed by Babcock, foliage, posies, and two butterfly studies, also by Babcock.
Image courtesy of the Sherborn Historical Society, Sherborn, Massachusetts.

The year was 1872, the banks of the Charles River were heavily populated with mills, and what we now call route 16 was an unpaved swath of dirt and dust cutting through the small district of south Natick. In March of that year, South Natick experienced a devastating fire that consumed Clark's merchant block (where the Charles River Cafe currently sits) and, perhaps most significantly, the entire holdings of the two year old Historical and Natural History Society of South Natick which was renting rooms within the block. The future of the neighborhood we now call home and the society itself was uncertain at best.  NHS may not have continued to flourish if it weren't for an interesting man by the name of A. L. Babcock.

A copy of Babcock's passport
application for his trip to South America
on behalf of the Natick Historical Society.
Image courtesy of the National Archives.
Amory Lealand Babcock lived just across the Natick town line in Sherborn, Massachusetts and was an avid taxidermist and naturalist specializing in ornithology.  He was well connected within the scholarly community and was also a founding member of the Natick Historical Society. When the young society's collections were lost to the fire, he proposed a daring scheme: since the society had insured their collections, they could give him the money and in return, he would travel to South America to collect a body of specimens valued at that amount. The deal was struck and the host of specimens that Babcock himself collected and prepared would form the new foundation of the collection (and indeed the identity) of the society upon his return.

On November 13, 1873, Babcock and his wife set sail from Boston for South America via the West Indies. After almost exactly one month they dropped anchor in Georgetown, a city in the Demerara region that is now part of present day Guyana (then known as British Guiana). Babcock's letters back home note that he was enthusiastically collecting specimens even while on the brig (the type of ship they traveled on), but he employed a wonderfully visceral euphemism to describe the more unpleasant parts of such a journey, "the sail down the harbor was delightful; but before we were well out of the channel, we commenced paying tribute to Neptune, and as far as myself was concerned, this was long continued, as I was sea sick during the whole voyage, more or less (usually more)."

The couple spent the winter and early spring exploring the area and did indeed collect many specimens for NHS, as he notes, "I intend to make as large collections as possible, in all departments. Insects here are in great variety. I have collected quite a number, and shall soon get many more. I have been so busily occupied by the birds that it has taken most of my time thus far. I have begun a botanical collection, have also got a number of fishes and reptiles. This country is exceedingly rich in almost every thing..."

On the left: One of the auks that Babcock caught while on  board the brig that carried him to South America.
On the right:
In addition to taxidermy, Babcock was also an
accomplished artist.
This is one of his specimen paintings showing a parakeet that is in the collection of the Sherborn Historical Society.

His collection, when brought back to the historic society, encouraged a huge number of successive natural history donations to the society in the proceeding years and drew interest from near and far. Indeed it was oft noted within the time period as rivaling, if not surpassing, other similar collections in the nation and helped to make Natick a magnetic point of activity around the evolving science of the natural world.

Some of the objects deteriorated over time from lack of proper care while others are still with us today though loaded with arsenic—one of the most popular means of preserving natural materials prior to modern non-toxic methods. In the 20th century, the society shifted its focus towards documenting the businesses and home life of its residents and eventually made the move to deaccession a large portion of the remaining birds. It was such a comprehensive, unique, and high-quality collection that you can now visit them at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Here at the museum of the Natick Historical Society, we still feature two cases that include many of Babcock's own specimens in a style similar to what would have been familiar to him. When you explore our exhibits and wonder about the varied and colorful birds, keep in mind that this place was built on the idea of a museum dedicated not just to preserving Natick history, but to the idea of bringing the world to Natick through a museum that opened up the natural world to its citizens.