Object of the month
On 24 January 2019, Marc Argeloo, the guest curator of the temporary exhibition 'BIRDS OF GOD', pulls open a drawer in the attic of the Mission Museum and immediately sees that it contains an extraordinary collection. The drawers in the cabinet contain dozens of specimens of six species of birds of paradise, many bundles of egret feathers and feathers of crowned doves. All without indication of place of finding, collector or date, as scientific collections have. But with price tags: a trade collection, in other words. How did such an extensive and unique trade collection end up in Steyl?
The work of the missionaries of the SVD, also known as the Steyl missionaries, was to spread the Word of God throughout the world and to set up education and health care from that work. To this end, they settled on the north coast of the eastern, then German, part of New Guinea in 1896. Also the habitat of birds of paradise. At the same time, the European and American fashion world became interested in bird feathers. Feathers, as well as whole birds, adorned the hats of wealthy women and sometimes men. The high demand for birds of paradise led to a huge trading network in their skins and feathers.
To finance the mission, the bird of paradise trade became a source of income. The SVD's trade books provide detailed insight into the numbers traded and the prices paid for them. Birds of paradise and trade books thus provided an important source of information to chart the trade in birds of paradise. This was then an important basis of the 'BIRDS OF GOD' exhibition.
Eventually, the establishment of several bird protection organisations, which opposed this practice, brought an end to the global trade in birds of paradise, among other things. The drawers full of feathers in the cupboard in the attic of the Mission Museum are silent - but colourful - remnants of this once lively global trade.