The Wall of Silhouettes mural project spans the entire length of the north wall in the Lab’s visitor center, and stretches upward to the ceiling (120 x 40 feet). The mural depicts 140 species of birds in silhouettes in their natural habitat, 170 individual birds in all (multiple birds of the same species).
The permanent installation of life-sized silhouettes acknowledges the importance of the culture of bird watching to the scientific study of birds, and celebrates the blurred lines between hard science and the intangible beauty of personal experience in the field.
The black silhouettes of birds against a white background reference the endpapers of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Birds (1934),a book that revolutionized the interaction of humans with nature by enabling amateur identification of creatures in the field. In Peterson’s book, each bird silhouette is accompanied by a number, which corresponds to a list of names.
In the mural each bird is depicted with an adjacent number, but the "key" of names does not appear on the wall, forcing the viewer to first look hard at the diverse shapes and forms of avian life without being able to satisfy the urge to answer the question "what is that?"
In this initial state of not knowing (and frustration), the viewer is free to think about nature and to admire its creatures for what they are rather than what their names, and accompanying prejudices, might imply about them. The point is that knowing the name of something is only an initial step in coming to know about something, and not a substitution for individual experiential learning.
A "field guide to the wall" will be available to visitors of the Lab in accompanying interpretive educational materials (but not on the wall). In this way the wall can become interactive, a kind of identification game, an indoor birding experience.
Prosek’s silhouettes are part of the Lab’s 2015 centennial anniversary, which will acknowledge the lab’s long history of combining science with the visual arts. The lab has commissioned permanent installations by Maya Lin, Jane Kim and Prosek.
Several silhouettes make art historical reverences, appropriating birds from works by John James Audubon, Francis Lee Jaques, and Martin Johnson Heade.