Museum receives grant to update bird displays

Local artist Kathy Tollenaere paints a wetland backdrop in the wetland bird display at the Carnegie Historical Museum in Fairfield. (Photo courtesy of Therese Cummiskey)
Local artist Kathy Tollenaere paints a wetland backdrop in the wetland bird display at the Carnegie Historical Museum in Fairfield. (Photo courtesy of Therese Cummiskey)

FAIRFIELD – The Carnegie Historical Museum is undergoing extensive remodeling and changes to its displays as it remains closed to the public.

The museum will show off these new improvements when it reopens, which its board hopes to be during the Fairfield First Fridays art walk on Sept. 6.

One of the most noticeable changes will be to the museum’s bird displays. Before renovation, the bird displays were scattered throughout the museum, with little information about the taxidermy behind the glass.

Museum curator Stan Plum said the displays hadn’t been updated since the museum’s last major renovation in the 1970s. He and director Mark Shafer were thinking of ways to improve the displays to make them more educational and inviting.

Therese Cummiskey joined the museum’s board last fall. As the longtime naturalist at Jefferson County Nature Center, Cummiskey brought with her a wealth of information about wildlife and birds in particular. She looked into ways of consolidating the displays into one section of the museum, and adding interpretative information about each of the taxidermy subjects and photographs.

She learned of a grant opportunity from the National Audubon Society through her friend Julie Johnston. Cummiskey applied for the grant and received $655 to update the bird displays.

Cummiskey reported that all of the grant money has been used, and five updated displays are nearly complete. The museum is seeking donations to complete the sixth display. The bird displays are now together on the south side of the museum, which is on the third floor of the building.

Cummiskey said the museum has a huge number of taxidermy birds still in storage – about 400 – and she hopes to rotate them into the new displays over time. She said it was important to continue the museum’s mission as a repository for both natural history and cultural history.

Among the new displays are one on the extinct passenger pigeon, a wetland birds display, one on birding in Fairfield, eagles and Iowa’s endangered birds, and one on J.M. Shaffer, who donated more than 400 pieces of taxidermy to the museum in 1893.

Local artist Kathy Tollenaere has painted a wetland backdrop for the wetland birds display.

“Our myriad of ducks and shorebirds needed a new display, and with Kathy’s painting, it looks stunning,” Cummiskey said. “Also, because we have so many wetland species in storage we can rotate birds on a regular basis keeping the display fresh for museum visitors.”

For the display on birding in Fairfield, Shafer has created a painting that will be part of that display, too. The display will contain birds mentioned in the journals of William and Carrie Ross, avid birders between 1890-1910. Included will be the original nature and birding journals of the Rosses. The exhibit will showcase an unfortunate incident in Fairfield’s history, when the construction of a light tower led to the demise of hundreds of migrating birds.

Cummiskey said the fact the museum has had to remain closed during the pandemic has a silver lining, which is that it’s allowed the museum to undertake such a large remodeling project.

“And it’s been messy,” Cummiskey joked. “It’s nice we don’t have to worry about members of the public tripping over anything.”

Cummiskey said she hopes to soon add a QRS code on the displays, so that visitors can scan the code with their cell phone and learn more about each display. Plum has talked about creating a “virtual tour” of the museum, so that it could be explored online.