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In Conversation with…Charlotte Stone, Head of Exhibitions & Galleries, and Susan Holmes, Exhibitions & Interpretation Manager on the Natural History Museum’s exhibition ‘Birds: Brilliant and Bizarre’

May 2024

Great Bustard in conservation © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Museums have always been a source of wonder for both Charlotte and Susan. Charlotte, who is currently the Head of Exhibitions and Galleries at the Natural History Museum, recalls visiting her local museum in Reading as a child and finding it fascinating. She pursued this interest, completing her master’s in museum studies at University College London and wrote her thesis on the Science Museum and the V&A. For Susan, who was a big David Attenborough fan growing up, she loved the informal learning environment of museums, and this early curiosity led her to work at the Historic Royal Palaces, British Museum and then the Natural History Museum. In her current role as Exhibitions and Interpretation Manager, she describes herself as “a butterfly, jumping between subjects.”

Though it has been over a decade since the museum last hosted an exhibition focused on birds, Susan and Charlotte highlight the museum’s passion for birds – “The museum has one of the biggest collections of birds in the world with over one million specimens covering 95% of all bird species. We want to bring attention to the current plight of birds; almost 50% of all bird species are in decline. Yet they have done an amazing job at evolving. They are the greatest survivors in some ways. And as with any exhibitions we do, there is an opportunity to showcase our science and the work of our 300 scientists. We know our audiences love birds and it’s a way of seeing what they can do for them and their environment.”

The hope is that the exhibition will provoke positive change. The aim is to “end on a hopeful note so people can imagine what a future where birds are thriving again would look and feel like. We want to show the solution to act in order to make it a possibility.”

Charlotte and Susan’s teams collaborate daily. Preparing for an exhibition of this scale has been a two-and-a-half-year endeavour broken into phases of research, interpretation, design, build and installation, and finally the opening. “We’re in constant contact with other departments and all the curators. It’s a lot of work but we enjoy it and it’s a real team effort!

One of the challenges of organising an exhibition focused on such a popular animal is the pressure to include people’s favourites, appealing to the domestic audience as well as visitors from around the globe. Another challenge is addressing the various levels of knowledge of the visitors: “the show presents a mix of different stories. Thinking of the more specialist audience allows us to look at birds through the lens of how they’re brilliant and bizarre and pull out some interesting facts to appeal to both groups.”

Azure-crowned Hummingbird (adults, juveniles and nest) Saucerottia cyanocephala © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Of the various species selected, Susan and Charlotte each have a favourite. For Susan it’s the humble canary: “We have it displayed with the canary resuscitator: when canaries were taken into coal mines to detect noxious gases, some of the mines developed resuscitators to revive them. It’s a good metaphor for birds sounding the alarm for the state of the natural world.”  Charlotte’s choice is the baby albatross. “The babies are precious and vulnerable: when the adults fly off to get food for a long time, there is a risk that they die of hunger. Interestingly they can sustain themselves for long periods of time as their parents feed them a highly nutritious oil made from fish.” Also included is the adult Albatross, which has a wingspan of 3.5 meters and will be the largest animal of the 140 items presented in the show. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the smallest is the hummingbird, described as “beautiful and iridescent.”

Susan and Charlotte reflect on the role of philanthropy in delivering this type of show: “Philanthropy is critical in this time and this kind of climate. We couldn’t have the Birds exhibition without this kind of support. It means we can help all visitors understand the emergency that we are facing with the planet, and to convert them into advocates. It helps us become part of the solution”.

HFF is supporting the Birds: Brilliant and Bizarre exhibition as Associate Donor with a £250,000 grant to the Natural History Museum.