The Bird Collector: Ridgefield’s 300th Year Anniversary Exhibition
July 29 to September 7, 2008
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum has mounted several exhibitions featuring birds—painted, sculpted, stuffed, even living—over the course of its exhibition history. In this tradition, and to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ridgefield’s founding, on July 29, 2008, the Museum will revisit a major work by artist Bill Barrette entitled The Bird Collector.
Barrette, who has a fascination with birds, discovered that Ridgefield resident Edward J. Couch had assembled one of the most significant collections of mounted birds native to New England in the second half of the nineteenth century. He set out to rediscover Couch’s impressive achievement, as well as to reveal the fascinating biography of one of the town’s most interesting citizens.
Couch, who lived on Branchville Road, was an amateur taxidermist who mounted the majority of the birds between the years 1860 and 1880. The specimens included nearly every variety of bird, both resident and migratory. Couch’s original collection numbered several hundred specimens, including birds which became extinct or rare, such as the passenger pigeon.
The Bird Collector was commissioned by The Aldrich in 1999 for the exhibition Playing Off Time: Contemporary Photographers in Dialogue with the Past. It celebrates Couch’s legacy through a multi-panel wood and glass curiosity case which contains over 2,000 letters, dozens of land deeds dating as far back as 1689, and numerous photographs, personal diaries, and ledgers.
Barrett’s project was prompted by a paragraph on Couch in George Rockwell’s 1927 History of Ridgefield, which started the artist on an exhaustive search for any clues to the whereabouts of the collection and of descendants of Couch’s family. He discovered relatives in Pennsylvania, David and Doris Freeman, and that the birds, given to Ridgefield High School after Couch’s son died in 1931, were discarded because of deterioration in the early 1940s.
“Barrett decided to create a ‘museum within a museum’ by making a folding curiosity cabinet on the naturalist and taxidermist, stated Aldrich exhibitions director Richard Klein. He continues, “The Freeman family generously provided documentation along with The Ridgefield Press and the Keeler Tavern, and Barrett represented the birds themselves by tracking down and photographing a similar, but smaller collection that had been given to the nearby Westport Nature Center. Barrette’s project ended up involving literally dozens of people in the community and resulted in the Freemans donating the surviving papers of the Couch family to the Keeler Tavern.”
“We are happy to bring this particular work back into the public eye because it has frozen a moment in time that has receded into the past, and become part of the history of the Museum and our community,” says Klein. “Work like this scratches the surface of a particular place, but like a scratch reminds us of the fragile membrane that separates who we are from where we are. We are very fortunate that this work has been so well preserved by the Ridgefield Historical Society, to whose collection it now belongs.”
The exhibition will be on view during regular Museum hours—Tuesday through Sunday, 12 noon to 5 pm—through September 7, 2008.
Image: Bill Barrette, The Bird Collector (detail), 1999