Bird of Paradise splendor and Papuan heritage in the Mission Museum

Fluorescent blue, bright yellow, blinding purple, orange, green: the courtship dance of the birds of paradise is one of the most exuberant rituals in the bird world. The males spread their plumage in seductive poses. With their head and tail feathers and wings they form a colorful, dancing fan. A courtship bird of paradise is a jewel.

This courtship takes place in the jungles of New Guinea. You would think that the birds lead an invisible existence there, but that is not the case. The birds have been hunted for centuries. In the Mission Museum of Steyl in Limburg there is an exhibition dedicated to these spectacular birds, their hunting and their protection. Birds of God. The journey of the bird of paradise is called the exhibition. The small museum is located next to the former Steyl monastery, where missionaries were trained.

Chests of drawers full of feathers

Bird expert and natural historian Marc Argeloo made an interesting discovery during a search in the archives: he found chests of drawers full of bellows of birds of paradise: skins with feathers. He decided to track down the story behind this and discovered that Limburg missionaries traded in birds to obtain money for their mission in the former Dutch East Indies. The birds’ plumage was loved by chic ladies in Western European cities. They sometimes even wore whole birds on their hats, as shown by some women’s hats from the collection of the Hat Museum ‘Zet ‘m op’ in Andijk.

Film with Papuan hunters

Argeloo did not only focus on the European perspective. Together with Uncen University in the Papuan capital Jayapura, he also conducted research into the role of the bird of paradise in Papuan identity and culture. Because, as headdresses in the exhibition show, Papuan women also decorated themselves with the decorative feathers, and men adorned themselves with the feathers in a martial manner.

In a film from the village of Arso, the descendants of the hunters of that time have their say; they talk passionately about the symbolic power of the birds of paradise, then and now. One of them, Demianus, calls the “woman a bird of paradise.” (The museum is organizing a special Papuan Heritage Day on the bird of paradise on April 27 – see box).

In addition to a variety of stuffed birds of paradise, we see the weapons used to hunt the birds, which are spears with a soft point so that the feathers were not damaged. Birds of paradise soon found their way west in images and writing. Author Rudolf Voorhoeve (1896-1982) published adventure books about hunting. Paris orders (1934) is one of them, subtitled Novel of gold, feathers and blood from the jungles of New Guinea. The order that Paris issued included the bird booty. A comic book Suske en Wiske is also devoted to the bird of paradise hunt, The birds of the gods (1997), with critical comments towards Chinese robbers who illegally traded in the divine birds.

The showpiece of the exhibition is a Nepalese headdress, made of bird of paradise feathers and decorated with pearls and gemstones, set in silver. At the end of Birds of God the harsh reality is discussed: the habitat of birds of paradise is seriously threatened by the felling of forests and the construction of roads and oil palm plantations. Illegal hunting also still takes place. Killed birds of paradise are offered in roadside stalls in Arso and around the capital Jayapura, formerly Hollandia. As if it were the most normal thing in the world.