A rare treat for ornithologists and art lovers

The National Museum of Scotland’s newest exhibition is rare treat for local ornithologists and birders alike as Audubon’s Birds of America is on display from until May 9.

In a private online tour on February 10, museum director Chris Breward and curator Mark Glancy walked patrons through the visually striking and informative exhibit featuring naturalist John James Audubon’s ‘Great Work’ which took Audubon nearly 12 years to complete.

There are 46 unbound prints on display from the National Museum off Scotland’s own collection – some pieces which have never been on display before – and a rare bound volume borrowed from Glasgow’s Mitchell Library.

Taxidermy is placed around the exhibit for museum patrons to compare the scale of real specimens to Audubon’s life-sized plumed subjects, each illustrated in their natural habitats.

The exhibit contextualises each piece on both its artistic and scientific relevance and takes you on a tour starting with Audubon’s life in Edinburgh where many of his plates where first published into his legacy and even the conservation process that goes into preserving and displaying his masterpieces.

One of the more famous pieces on display is the Wild Turkey, which Audubon thought – along with American President Benjamin Franklin – should be the United States national bird over that of the Bald Eagle.

An essential section of the exhibit is Birds of the World which is dedicated to the conservation of endangered species and habitats.

While Mark Glancy wouldn’t call Audubon a conservationist in the modern sense, his impact on the preservation of many of America’s bird species in no less significant as many of his subjects are vulnerable to climate change, hunting and urbanisation and have since become endangered or even extinct—like the Carolina Parakeet.

Despite his undisputable contribution to science and conservation, Mark Glancy explained that Audubon wasn’t beloved by everyone, and to this day, you can still find heavy debate in academic circles on whether or not he was a charlatan and a fraud – especially after his infamous and controversial Bird of Washington, an eagle which many now believe to not have existed.

Whether or not all of his works are as accurate as he would want us to believe, Audubon’s Birds of America is a spectacular piece of work and well worth a trip to the National Museum of Scotland to see.

Published as a series between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a landmark work that achieved international renown due to the epic scale of the project and the book’s spectacular, life-sized ornithological illustrations. His paintings of the natural world are still some of the most famous in the history of art and natural sciences. Find out more at nms.ac.uk/BirdsofAmerica