Artist honors pigeons with mobile museum at Philly University of Arts

In front of the University of the Arts is one of Matt Zigler's pigeon depictions, next to birdseed dispensers. The exhibit also includes the "Mobile Museum of Pigeon Culture and History."
In front of the University of the Arts is one of Matt Zigler's pigeon depictions, next to birdseed dispensers. The exhibit also includes the "Mobile Museum of Pigeon Culture and History."
Posted: April 09, 2011

If a pigeon ever pooped on your head or desecrated your windshield, you might find yourself bewildered at the saintlike images of the birds on South Broad Street.

Rendered in bold colors on plexiglass, the five depictions of pigeons beckon pedestrians to make an offering of birdseed in front of the University of the Arts building.

It's a pigeon pantheon.

Stride to the other side of the staircase in front of the building and you will find a large crate housing "The Mobile Museum of Pigeon Culture and History."

A small sign explains that the museum is the collection of Red Lahore, who wanted to "convince the world that pigeons are far from the pests we see them as."

Lahore is the fictional creation of Matt Zigler, whose pigeon exhibit just helped him earn his master's degree from the university.

Zigler arrives in Philadelphia this weekend to dismantle his project but says most of it will be open Saturday.

A resident of North Carolina, near Chapel Hill, Zigler has lived in Philadelphia part-time while pursuing his master of fine arts degree. Initially, he shared Woody Allen's view of pigeons as "rats with wings."

"It was sort of ... there are mice in my dorm room and pigeons on the street," Zigler said.

But one day in the summer of 2007, the 33-year-old art teacher noticed a beige pigeon amid a gray flock. That got him thinking about how people so often fail to notice the "little dramas, narratives, and moments of profound value" around them.

His brain took flight, pursuing pigeon information with the speed - the birds can fly more than 60 m.p.h. - of his subject.

He pored over two recent books, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, and Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan . . . and the World.

His case for changing our understanding of pigeons goes something like this:

We love doves and imbue them with spiritual meaning. Scientifically, doves and pigeons are practically the same bird.

Through most of our history, people held pigeons in high esteem. During World War II, a pigeon named G.I. Joe carried a message that saved 1,000 people. Squab is considered a delicacy, though Zigler notes that it's a baby pigeon. People once ate pigeons more, but as industrial farming took hold, chicken became the preferred bird.

The more Zigler studied, the more he believed that the dulcet cooing of pigeons spoke loudly about society. His "genocide" poster in the museum refers to passenger pigeons. They met with extinction in 1914, killed by hunters and loss of habitat as trees were felled for farms.

But an artist who is a friend of pigeons? The birds whose droppings defile architecture?

Even there, Zigler sees a lesson. Pigeon droppings have become more acidic as the birds have learned to eat our trash, he said. When the birds ate a more natural diet, their droppings were valued as fertilizer.

"We get what we put out there," Zigler said. "When we start feeding them processed pizza crusts and Wonder bread, we get the results of that."

That's why his exhibit entices visitors to put 25 cents in a gumball-type machine to buy birdseed to "feed" one of the pigeon images, which sit atop small black altars.

The pigeon museum is a moving crate donated by PODS Enterprises Inc., a container company. Everyone calls it the Pod.

Inspired by fictional characters in art, Zigler came up with Lahore, named after a fancy breed of pigeons.

According to Zigler, Lahore, once a student at Duke University, withdrew from society as he fed his pigeon obsession.

Zigler came up with Lahore's story by thinking about how scientists must find it difficult to cope with knowledge about humans harming the environment.

"I think it would take an extraordinary amount of will for a scientist not to despair, so I let Lahore go ahead and despair," Zigler said.

Don't expect Zigler to be as much of a downer as his alter ego. In a phone conversation, he sounded thoughtful and lighthearted.

Later, he sent an e-mail that read: "Maybe there's hope for the good name of the pigeon yet."


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.

 

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