Undercover Bird Man

When the Pink Palace opened its doors in 1930 as the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts, there were not a lot of objects in the collection. In fact, the museum opened on March 8, 1930 with little fanfare other than two small news articles. Only three rooms had partially finished exhibits. The “most interesting collections” were an Arctic wolf, Kodiak bear, Sonora grizzly, glacier grizzly, sea otter, California heads and a musk ox head. The commissioners said “It is the idea of the commissioners as well as the advisory board that the utmost care be taken in its acceptance and placing of exhibits in this museum…This care on the part of those in charge of the museum we hope the public will appreciate and by doing so thereby understand the small amount of space occupied at this time with exhibits.” In an effort to fill out the museum, the board added the Boshart bird collection in 1931 after a considerable amount of handwringing.

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Charles Fred Boshart was born in Lowville, NY, in 1860. He attended Cornell University and earned a degree in agriculture. He worked in farming until 1909 when he succeeded his father as vice-president and director of the First National Bank of Lowville. He collected his first bird, a robin, in 1875 when he was fourteen. His family members reported that he collected birds throughout his life. He eventually had roughly 80 assistants who collected birds in 25 states and multiple countries. He died in 1928, and he left his collection to Cornell. However, the university could not meet all of the stipulations for the gift, which included constructing a building to display the collection, so the executors of the will decided to sell the collection in 1931 for $2,100. Clark & Deck Studios, the firm hired by the City of Memphis to help with the layout of the museum, approached Park Commissioner Frank Fisher about purchasing the birds. Not trusting the firm’s opinion, Fischer asked Nash Buckingham of the American Wild Fowlers to have Washington, D.C. ornithologist Dr. Harry Oberholser inspect the collection before the purchase. Oberholser, who worked with the United States Bureau of Biological Survey, was instructed to not tell Deck that he was connected to the city’s purchase of the birds. Oberholser reported to Buckingham that the birds were a good collection for the museum. In a separate letter to Fischer, Oberholser made it clear that, for several reasons, it would be best if Deck never found out about his connection to the City of Memphis. The birds were purchased and finally put on display in 1938.

“City’s Museum Opens Tomorrow,” Evening Appeal, March 7, 1930.
“Park Board to Open New Museum Today,” Commercial Appeal, March 8, 1930. Pg. 9.

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