The amazing journey of Herman the Duck, Minnesota’s goofiest historic artifact


In the summer of 2010, the Minnesota Historical Society began an unprecedented effort to digitize its three-dimensional object collections. The ongoing project has led to the photography of an impressive range of artifacts–everything from matchbooks and tea cups to telescopes and Civil War battle flags. No two objects are photographed in exactly the same way, since they vary so widely in size, shape and age. A single object may consist of many different components, all of which must be put together before the picture can be taken. If the object is especially large, it must be brought to the photography studio, where the high ceiling and ample open space can accommodate even a life-size buffalo (taxidermied, of course). And if the object involves clothing, a mannequin must be found that can support its unique shape.

Such were the challenges posed by Herman the Duck, a six-piece, seven-foot tall mallard costume acquired by MHS in 1987. For decades, Herman served as the mascot of Minneapolis-based North Central Airlines, lending his image to the company’s distinctive flying duck logo. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, after North Central had changed its name to Republic Airlines, that Herman took on the outsize dimensions and larger-than-life personality embodied by the costume. Capturing that personality on camera involved a number of steps, and no small measure of behind-the-scenes collaboration.

The process began in collections storage, where Herman rested in an array of disembodied parts.  Though sad for Herman, this arrangement is ideal for the long-term preservation of the costume’s individual elements.  A mannequin was selected that was both sturdy enough to hold up Herman’s body and narrow enough in the legs to fit into his tight stretch pants.  Webbed feet, pants, body and head were placed on the mannequin, and Herman sprang to life.

Collections assistant Jason Onerheim adjusted Herman’s scarf so it draped at just the right angle.  The costume also features an aviator’s cap and goggles, the better to show off Herman’s connection to Republic Airlines.

Finally, Herman was ready for his flight to the photography studio.  Although it’s a relatively short trip, the rolling cart minimized impact on the objects, and maintained the costume’s position on the mannequin.

The cart was wheeled into the studio and onto a paper backdrop.  Herman was ready for his close-up!

Jason experimented with lighting options, camera settings and angles to achieve the perfect shot.  The result is a digital record of Herman in all his fully-fledged glory.