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ArtDuckO: Waterfowl Culture in North Carolina

Nearly 400 carved decoys from 1872 to 2008, beautiful Audubon bird prints and natural bird specimens only skim the surface of ArtDuckO: Waterfowl Culture in North Carolina, an exhibit opening Friday, March 21, at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. ArtDuckO brings together 150 years of waterfowl culture ― from decoy carving, art and fashion to market hunting, hunt clubs and conservation efforts — into one fascinating exhibit. Admission is free.

Mixing fun with information, ArtDuckO’s re-created environmental settings, hands-on activities, Ducks Unlimited hunting games, and video components immerse visitors into a world of waterfowl. Artifacts include rare Audubon prints from the N.C. Museum of Art, waterfowl specimens from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, feathered fashions, hunting guns, boats, and Donald Duck toys from the 1940s and 1950s.

Ducks and waterfowl have influenced much of North Carolina’s history,” says Sandy Webber, exhibit curator. “ArtDuckO explores how they have affected the state’s economy, carving traditions, hunting practices, art and conservation efforts. We have something for everyone, including a reading nook for children.”

Enter the exhibit through a 1960s decoy carver’s workshop filled with tools, patterns and carvings owned by Alvin Harris, who was a well-known carver in the Core Sound area. Prized decoys by other Tar Heels, such as Mitchell Fulcher (1869-1950) from Carteret County and James Best (1866-1933) from Kitty Hawk, appear throughout the exhibit.

Nearly 400 decoys and bird carvings from 1872 to 2008 range from working decoys to decorative works of art.

ArtDuckO delves into the history of the state’s hunting and shooting clubs. North Carolina emerged as the “Waterfowl Capital of the World” in the late 1800s, after sportsmen from the North and other parts of the country discovered its bountiful hunting grounds. Wealthy northern businessmen established more than 100 gunning clubs and lodges from 1870 to 1920 within a 100-mile radius of Back Bay, Currituck Sound and adjoining marshes. They brought their own decoys until the 1930s, when they began purchasing them from local carvers. ArtDuckO features numerous decoys made in the North and used by members in hunt clubs, such as the Swan Island Shooting Club and the opulent Lighthouse Club (now the Whalehead Club) on Corolla Island.

The exhibit’s waterfowl guns, boats and equipment typify the tools used by commercial hunters who sought waterfowl for meat and the feather industry. An exhibit section with 11 firearms follows the evolution of the waterfowl gun, beginning with an American colonist’s flintlock 12-gauge, single-barreled muzzleloader, ca. 1750-1780.

Feathers became fashionable for women’s hats and accessories in the 1850s. A Victorian room setting in ArtDuckO showcases dresses, hats, stoles and fans embellished with feathers. One 1910 silk taffeta hat features the whole body of a seagull.

Feathers were once fashionable for women’s clothes and accessories, such as this 1910 silk taffeta hat.

Commercial hunting eventually depleted the state’s waterfowl. For example, tens of millions of birds — especially white egrets, herons and small terns — were killed at the height of the feather trade. In 1917 North Carolina became the first state to outlaw market hunting, and other restrictions followed.

ArtDuckO highlights the conservation efforts of the Audubon Society and features a first-edition set of Birds of America 1827-1838 by John James Audubon. Visitors will see glorious prints from this four-volume edition completed by Audubon in 1838 and engraved by Robert Havell Jr. in London, England. It took Havell 11 years to produce nearly 200 sets.

There’s something for all ages to enjoy in ArtDuckO. Kids can follow the Quack Facts by Professor Quack, and dive into the play area complete with a boat to climb in. Plan now to see this multifaceted exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History.

Photo credit: N.C. Museum of History