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Building Beyond: A Birds-Eye View

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

At 12:00pm Central European Time on Wednesday, May 12th, 2021, the Global Raptor Alliance (formerly the Hawk And Falcon Cooperative) will announce the opening of the Avian Museum of Human History. This museum will feature a bird's-eye view (literally) of human civilization.

Mar Stratford is a writer from the Mid-Atlantic and friend to all animals. Find zir online at mar-stratford.com or on Twitter.

Gailey: What are a couple of highlights of the avian narrative of human civilization? What kind of artifacts will be featured in the museum?

Mar: I think the Avian Museum of Human History is about the history of humans’ relationships with birds, both positive and negative aspects. I’d like to imagine that this museum has been established in honor of a treaty between, say, the United Nations and the Global Raptor Alliance, which requires the UN to repair and protect birds’ habitats. And, in this world, the museum was built with funds seized from billionaires, so it’s really lovely, with vaulted ceilings and big windows, very spacious and airy.

Some highlights would include:

  • Oral accounts from some of the birds that witnessed the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, and possibly some artifacts from the site, since humans gaining the ability to fly was probably an important event for birds. I think humans will probably find this exhibit condescending.
  • A solemn memorial room dedicated to all the birds hunted to extinction.
  • A room set up by New Caledonian crows (a specific group of crows studied for their problem solving skills) explaining humans’ interest in studying birds, with an interactive exhibit where other birds can take a try at using a bent piece of metal to get a treat out of a long tube.
  • Bird baths from around the world, with quotes on the walls from birders describing how magnificent birds are, and how great it is to watch them.

Gailey: Is the museum open to human visitors?

Mar: The museum is open to human visitors, but the building has been designed with birds in mind, so there’s lots of perches on the walls for birds to sit on while they take in the exhibits, and the gift shop mostly sells twigs and bits of shiny metal.

Gailey: How will the GRA communicate that to humanity?

Mar: Well, as far as we know, no animal can use language in the same way humans can, but if there’s a bird museum, we can assume that in this world, birds have evolved symbolic thinking and can communicate through writing. Bird writing looks like cuneiform; they press their little claws into clay in different patterns.

J.M. Coster (Jen, she/her) is an erstwhile MD turned speculative fiction writer. She is an associate editor for the Hugo-nominated science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod. She is one half of the movies and medicine podcast Docs Watch. She also co-produces the game dev comedy podcast Coffee with Butterscotch from Butterscotch Shenanigans. Currently, Jen lives in St. Louis, MO with her robomancer husband and recalcitrant cats. She likes creepy fairy tales, making robots do her work, and thinks ghost stories and food stories are not so dissimilar. She occasionally tweets (in English) at @jcalyst.

(This press release from the Songbird Consortium Daily Chirrup is translated to English from the original tweets.)

Those who have been following the construction of the Avian Museum of Human History, the first museum of its kind with a landbound focus, will not be surprised to hear that the skybrightening grand opening was clouded by controversy. The project, which was funded and curated by the Global Raptor Alliance in partnership with the Free Association of Pigeons and the human organization the National Audubon Society, intends to provide a balanced educational experience for both Aves and humans, but critics claim that the result is “overly biased towards avian-human collaboration.”

The centerpiece of the museum, the exhibit “The Evolution of Birdfeeders,” is located in the open-air great hall and takes advantage of the magnificent space with a meandering timeline of human history, beginning and ending with immense weaverbird installations. The first of these depicts an early human ancestor, crouched with arm extended toward a dodo (and we are all aware of how well that went). From there, one can follow the human journey from single pairs to expansive colonies containing multiple flocks. You can also investigate iterations of human designed seed scatterers (several of which are delightfully anti-squirrel). At the end of the chronology, you will find yourself back near the beginning, but now before the second installation, this one a ground-level view of a city street, with a modern human in a pose mirroring the start, scattering bread before a pigeon. It is this provocative last scene that ruffled the most feathers.

“This is just another way for the handfeeders to push their agenda,” said Petrel Ross, a vocalizer for the Flock First Movement, before he took wing early in protest. “What about the Great Deforestation Events? Species eradication? There’s a point of view here, and it’s anything but balanced.”

Colum Grouse, head curator of the museum and representative of the Free Association responded, “There are those among us intent on overbrooding concerns that may never hatch. We are simply presenting a joined history, in hopes that avian-human relations can continue to improve.“ Before ending his interview, Grouse added, “If a finch doesn’t evolve, it starves.”

If you choose to experience the museum, and we at the Songbird Consortium do recommend it, be sure to visit The Hall of Human Art, which contains both hilarious and remarkable humanmade renderings of the avian form – it’s the largest collection of such representation in existence. Some of the more delicate patrons should be aware that there are multiple sculptures evocative of owls – take care and caution as needed, and note that a comfort room is provided, with preening, bathing, and anting facilities. The interactive Room of Shinies is also worth seeing, with its display of exemplar homes (not to scale) incorporating found human objects such as crumpled metal scrap, sparkling beads, and colorful ribbon in their construction. Similar items are available for purchase in the gift shop.

In a month’s time, the museum will open its doors to humans as well. Invitations will be extended through a series of precisely orchestrated starling murmurations. “We’ve been hard at work on formation flocking, which will allow for large-scale messaging using a variety of human glyphs,” said Falco Verius, the GRA’s interspecies communications liaison. “In early field tests, we had a 12% comprehension rate, and that rate has only continued to improve.” The first of the invitations is scheduled for dusk tonight.

My museum would be deeply condescending toward humanity. The bird curators would be delighted to invite human visitors into exhibits about humans' rudimentary approach to flight, flimsy understanding of magnetic fields, and slow advancements in weaving and construction. There would be a single room celebrating outstanding human achievements, including the building of skyscrapers for use as peregrine falcon nests. The invitation to visit the museum would be received by humanity with some excitement – but in the end, human visitors would leave feeling strangely bereft, and with sore necks from a day spent trying to see exhibits that are just a little too high-up for comfort.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Mar’s museum is where one might find a story about bird socialism and a growing alliance between humans and animals. Jen's museum is the start of a fantastically immersive exploration of bird politics. My museum is the start of a brittle, extended critique of humanity's tendency to exceptionalize itself.

What would your museum look like? How might its curators approach their subjects? How might it change the relationship between humans and birds?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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No matter what you do, please find a way to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, which are still experiencing sustained, targeted violence throughout the United States. There are some resources here to get you started.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.