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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Museum Digs Skeletons Out of Closet

MTA boy staring at one of the specimens that the Darwin Museum has put on display in an exhibition of its rarest artifacts.
With its 95th birthday just a couple of months away, Moscow's renowned Darwin Museum has raided its storerooms and come up with a grand display of its rarest and most valuable possessions.

The "Rarities of the Darwin Museum" exhibition, which opened this week and runs through Oct. 20, brings together a loosely linked collection of the museum's star specimens, including one of the most expensive natural history books in the world, a vast assortment of stuffed hummingbirds and various strangely deformed beasts to rival those of St. Petersburg's grisly Kunstkammer.

Also on display are many examples of stuffed animals that are either in danger of becoming extinct or, like the dodo, have already disappeared for good.

The exhibition begins with one of the museum's most valuable artifacts, "Birds of America" by John James Audubon, a lifetime's work of 435 prints -- all handpainted by the author -- that give a unique insight into U.S. ornithology in the 19th century. It is one of only a handful of complete copies of the book in the world.

Audubon, who has been called America's greatest natural history artist, was the first person to sketch the feathered fauna of North America. Unfortunately, unpaid debts incurred during his ornithological work initially meant that he became a jailbird rather than bird-watcher. Only with the help of Napoleon Bonaparte's cousin, Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, himself a famous ornithologist, did Audubon finish "Birds of America." Bonaparte bailed him out by finding subscribers to pay for the unfinished book.

All Audubon's birds were painted on vast sheets of printing paper that -- bearing in mind the natural history connection -- were rather aptly called double elephant folios.

"All birds are actual size, whether it's a small bird or a large one," said Urana Kuular, the museum's press secretary, pointing to a brown pelican, which, neck scrunched up, barely fits onto the page. "If the the bird has a long neck then it is drawn, like this one, so that everything is fitted in."

"Birds of America," which was published between 1827 and 1839, ended up in Russia thanks to a rich aristocrat, A. Khomyakov, who was a great collector of natural history curios. Khomyakov set up his own museum but it was seized by the government when he fled Russia after the Revolution and his specimens were turned over to the Darwin Museum. The book's value is put into perspective by the fact that single prints of the first edition of "Birds of America" are on sale on the Internet for up to $85,000.

One of the birds that Audubon painted was the passenger pigeon. Although Audubon's print of it is not on display -- only two of his prints are on view, along with the closed book -- a stuffed version of the pigeon can be seen a few meters away.

Passenger pigeons were so numerous in 19th-century North America that one observer wrote of how the sky went dark for four hours as a flock flew overhead. The population of passenger pigeons in North America was estimated at between 1 billion and 4 billion at the time, but by 1914 the species was extinct, wiped out by hunters.

The stuffed pigeon is one of several examples of extinct animals on display.

Next to the passenger pigeon stands a skeleton of the dodo, a flightless bird from Mauritius that died out in the 17th century and -- apart from a brief appearance in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" -- hasn't been seen since. No one at the museum is sure how the skeleton was acquired, only that sometime in 1941 a dead dodo appeared on the museum's ledger -- perhaps a treasure appropriated from a nature-loving bourgeois family.

Beside the dodo lies an egg of the extinct elephant bird, a massive beast that used to roam Madagascar and laid eggs even bigger than those of the largest dinosaur. The egg on display -- cracks still showing -- has been painstakingly stuck together after being used previously to store rum, according to an information card nearby.

Nearby is another extremely rare exhibit -- an original penguin, a bird that few people are aware existed. Once itself known as the penguin, the great auk, an Arctic bird from the North Atlantic, died out in 1844. Only when the auk became extinct was the name penguin taken over by the comic creatures we know today.

The great auk is so rare that when the Natural History Museum in London learned that the Darwin Museum had stuffed one, it refused to believe it until a picture of the specimen was sent.

As well as extinct animals, the exhibition focuses on endangered species, including skeletons or stuffed specimens of orangutans, tigers and a wombat. For those wondering about the morality of highlighting the plight of endangered species by displaying dead animals, all the stuffed specimens in the exhibition are at least 100 years old.

One of the most amazing series of stuffed animals on display are 59 colorful hummingbirds, some as tiny as a child's finger.

The museum also displays two specimens -- a stuffed antelope and a squirrel -- discovered by two of Russia's greatest explorers, Nikolai Przhevalsky and Vladimir Arsenyev. Przhevalsky discovered 218 species on his travels in Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang, including the wild horse of Mongolia, while Arsenyev, who explored the Ussuri River in the Russian Far East, found his autobiography, "Dersu Uzala," the subject of an acclaimed film by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa.

For anyone interested in live ornithology, the museum also sells a book for the urban birdwatcher, "Birds of Moscow," which has detailed descriptions, a picture guide and a tape of the calls of all birds resident in the capital.

The Darwin Museum is located at 57 Ulitsa Vavilova. Metro Akademicheskaya. The exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.