This touring exhibition presents an exciting opportunity to display a beautiful selection of 46 plates from one of the world’s most famous and valuable rare books, Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785–1851).
Birds of America is a landmark work of ornithological illustration which took almost 12 years to complete. Today only 120 copies are known to exist and they are rarely on display. The plates featured in this exhibition, each measuring almost one metre (39 inches) in height, are drawn from the National Museums Scotland library collection. The majority have never been on show to the public and have undergone years of conservation treatment in preparation for their inaugural display and tour.
This exhibition is a new interpretation of the making and significance of this incredible body of work and the story will be complemented by letters, taxidermy, manuscripts, photography and films. It will explore the book’s historical context and consider why Audubon’s artistic style was so ground-breaking. Lastly, it will question how this book came to influence natural sciences today and what we can learn from its legacy.
The exhibition will address some of the complexities and controversies surrounding the book’s creator, John James Audubon. In addition, it will show how the intelligentsia in Edinburgh, Scotland influenced the book’s formation and led to its publication following Audubon’s rejection by the scientific community in Philadelphia, USA.
An important conservation thread runs throughout the exhibition and is highlighted at the end, raising awareness of our impact on nature and how bird populations have changed since the 19th century. Visitors should be left feeling motivated and inspired to protect the natural world.
A Journey Through the Exhibition
Meet the Birds of America
Introducing the world’s most expensive book and its artist John James Audubon. This section will immerse visitors in the sensory beauty of the Birds of America illustrations through an emotive projected film.
Fascination for Nature
Placing Birds of America in its artistic and scientific context, examining the work of other bird illustrators and their influence on Audubon, and exploring why his work was so ground-breaking in comparison.
Birds of America takes flight
Find out why Audubon was rejected by the American scientific community and follow his journey across the Atlantic to England and Scotland, where he was finally able to begin publishing Birds of America.
The Great Work
Discover the technical skill, artistic audacity and expert team it took to realise Audubon’s vision for his ‘Great Work’.
Scientist of charlatan?
Learn about the critical reception to Audubon’s work and explore his importance in identifying and naming new species as well as the controversies around his science, some of which are still debated today.
A fragile beauty
Find out how some of the birds that Audubon depicted are faring today, underlining why the beauty and fragility of nature – as reflected in Audubon’s ‘Great Work’ – is our responsibility to protect.
Paintings Drawings & Prints
Manuscripts Books & Maps
Available Package Options
Collection and interpretation
Past and Future Venues
National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, 12 February to 8 May 2022
Booked (location to be announced), June to September 2023