Our nesting instincts

perched with strings

Finches get acclimated in the PEM gallery atop a Gibson Les Paul guitar for our upcoming exhibition FreePort [No. 007]: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

FreePort [No. 007]: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot turns a gallery into a walk-through aviary for a flock of 70 zebra finches, and calls for considerations not typical of most exhibitions. Painting, sculpture and photography shows, for instance, don’t require exhaustive conversations about food, water, lighting that mimics circadian rhythms, floor-to-ceiling netting and recovery plans in the event of an escape.

“There are definitely a lot of logistics,” explained Jaime DeSimone, the exhibition project coordinator. “I’ve learned a lot more about birds than I ever knew when I started working on this exhibition. Did you know that anywhere birds can perch, they will? That’s why we had to cover the lights.”

mik and condos

Mic Billingsley from our exhibition design team fills bird “condos” with nesting material. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

The exhibition at PEM marks the U.S. debut of this iteration of Boursier-Mougenot’s immersive sonic installation from here to ear. The French artist has introduced the birds to live among 10 Gibson Les Paul and four Thunderbird bass guitars in a 2,000 square-foot gallery space. Visitors are invited to move along walkways and experience a constantly changing soundscape as the birds explore their environment — eating, nesting and perching on the amplified instruments.

“In this installation, birds make music as we’ve never experienced it before,” said Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense. “It is an opportunity to perceive, create and interact with music and challenge traditional notions of artistic collaboration.”

Such boundary-breaking innovation could only occur, however, after addressing more mundane matters, such as the HVAC system. The birds need to inhabit a space with a self-contained air exchange that vents outside, which is the case with Barton Gallery.

The exhibition planning team credits Robert Monk, PEM’s director of facilities and security, with making the exhibition possible. Many people in a similar museum position would reject the unconventional idea of welcoming 70 birds to live in a gallery for three months, said Jane Winchell, The Sarah Fraser Robbins director of the Art & Nature Center and interpretive liaison for the exhibition.

“His first response was, ‘Let’s see how we can make this happen,’” said Winchell. Monk brought in an industrial hygienist to review the museum’s ventilation and ensure proper protocols were in place to meet health regulations. “Without him being an advocate, there’s no way we could do this. He was amazingly receptive.”

The brightly plumed birds, native to Australia, are owned and raised by professional breeders and came to PEM via handlers for film and theater productions. The trainers helped the birds adjust to the new space and review the proper way to care for them.


Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is the museum’s official veterinarian during our current FreePort exhibition. She was on hand when 70 finches were released in the gallery so they can acclimate before the exhibition opens January 18. A Boston Globe photographer documented the release. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Dr. Elizabeth Bradt visits the birds weekly and remains on call at all times. The new bird habitat includes three “nest condos” hanging from the ceiling, along with cymbals that hold food and water. A chain curtain at the opening and emergency doors keep birds from flying the coop, so to speak. Tufts of straw grasses (which the birds can use for nesting materials) and a 3-inch-deep bed of sand (for easier clean up) cover the sealed floor.

For the run of the show, PEM has hired special staff with experience working with animals to clean the space twice daily, provide fresh food and water and be available to answer questions. The walkway that winds through the space allows for an immersive experience with the birds, so immersive in fact that staff has wipes available in the event anyone gets struck with droppings.

Bradt, owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem, cares for a sun conure named Rascal in her waiting room and estimates that 10 to 15 percent of her practice is treating birds. She said the adaptable finches will enjoy the chance to fly around the big and airy space. And the opportunity to explore new territory has been equally invigorating for her.

“There aren’t too many veterinarians in the United States who have a chance to be part of developing an art exhibition with a major museum,” said Bradt. “I’ve always been on the sciency end of things. It’s an honor to be involved.”


  1. TheBirdLady says:

    Shame on Dr Bradt for advocating this exploitation of animals. Veterinarians are NOT animal behaviorists, and these birds were let loose in an unknown space like a free for all. PEM has also not informed the public that two of the birds have already died. One died during transport (likely due to stress) and the other died when they were released in the exhibit by crashing into a wall (that does not sound like much time to acclimate to a huge, bright, white space when these birds likely came from dim, small breeding quarters).

    And I guarantee you will be finding more dead birds, due to territorial fights and starvation. Depending on how aversive the musical objects in this exhibit are to these birds that have never seen or heard such a thing in their lives, some may choose not to eat at all.

    I bet PEM and Dr. Bradt did not weigh these birds before their arrival, and I doubt they will be weighing all 70 (or is it now 68?) birds every day. Weighing a bird every day is often the first and only way to catch illness as they do not exhibit other signs.

    You will have dead birds everywhere. Better hope the public doesn’t see them.

  2. Dinah Cardin
    Dinah Cardin says:

    We’d like to address some of your concerns. First, no birds have died in this exhibition and we’re doing everything we can to prevent any harm to these birds. Dr. Bradt, a veterinarian and an avian expert, cares about animals as much as we do.

    Since you have commented anonymously, we don’t know how you obtained your information.

    Some facts:

    The aviary offers the birds everything they need to thrive and has been designed to prevent escape and injury.

    The birds are given every opportunity to rest in hanging nest “condos” and special UV lights gradually come up in the morning and down again in the evening, so the birds maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.

    Twice daily, the birds are fed and the aviary is cleaned.

    The birds were raised in captivity and will be returned at the end of the exhibition to the theatrical production animal handlers who lent them.

    Thanks for reading PEM Connected.

  3. Erling Falck says:

    Nice going Dinah!

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