Audubon's Birds of America takes flight

On its first trip outside the Library since it was acquired in 1885, Audubon’s Birds of America is at MONA in Hobart. Our registrars chart the journey of this extraordinary loan.

In 2016,  we began preparing one of the Library’s most significant items for an exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).

John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1839) is considered one of the finest of all ornithological works and is the most valuable set of rare books in the Library’s collection. The four-volume set was acquired in 1885 and consists of hand-coloured, life-size prints known as ‘double elephant’ folios, made from engraved plates. MONA will display the first volume, open at the magnificent Carolina Parrot, one of several now-extinct birds featured by Audubon.

Carolina Parrot, plate 26 from John James Audubon's Birds of America
View collection item detail

Although Birds of America has been exhibited at the Library on several occasions — most recently in the exhibition The Art of Audubon & Gould in 1999 — this is the first time it has been sent out on loan. As a result, there were many new considerations as we prepared the item to take flight.

As registrars, we manage all exhibition loans from the collection. Working closely with conservators and curators, we balance the Library’s obligation to ensure the safety and security of the collection with increasing requests for physical access to original items. This involves managing loan agreements and insurance, coordinating packing, safe transport, handling and display at the exhibition venue, and rehousing material on its return.

MONA approached the Library back in June 2015, with a visit from the Senior Research Curator to enquire about borrowing an Audubon volume. A formal letter of request then arrived from the museum’s founder and owner David Walsh. Enclosing a detailed facilities report — outlining MONA’s loan expertise, environmental conditions, and building information including doorway and corridor sizes — Walsh explained the rationale behind the planned exhibition On the Origin of Art. From this point, we began to assess logistics and obtain costings on specialised packing and transport.

MONA believes that On the Origin of Art is its most ambitious exhibition to date. It is based on the premise that art is more than a cultural phenomenon — its ubiquity throughout societies is associated with evolutionary processes. To provide arguments both for and against this concept, the museum engaged four leading scientists to curate the exhibition with its resident curatorial team.

Audubon’s Birds of America was requested by guest curator Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist who has been named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Pinker believes the arts are ‘unnecessary but wonderful “cheesecake”, with Audubon’s volumes offering one of visual art’s greatest visual and intellectual superdoses’.

Along with conservators, we analysed MONA’s facilities report to ensure there would be no surprises after the volume left the Library. The scale of the volume is a logistical challenge: it measures 1.5 metres when opened and weighs approximately 20 kg — not your standard book!It took nearly two days to photograph the over-sized volume, with conservators using the high-resolution images to produce a report on the condition of the work, which is necessary for insurance.

For all outgoing loans, there are key considerations to minimise the risks. We need to approve all showcases and display methods, and prepare the item for transport in a custom-made, well-insulated crate. To reduce handling, the most direct transport route must be used. A conservator will accompany the item in transit and oversee its unpacking, checking its condition and assisting with the installation. Strict security is maintained by limiting knowledge of transport arrangements to a need-to-know basis.

With all of these measures in place, it is exciting that one of the Library’s most significant items will soon be on display at MONA, impressing its wonder on a twenty-first century audience. As David Walsh stated in his request letter:

We do believe that On the Origin of Art … will reinvigorate these great works in a tremendously exciting dialogue with contemporary art … Our guest-curator scientists, needing to show why they think we make art, need bloody good art to make their point. 

by Caroline Lorentz, Registrar, and Lauren Dalla, Assistant Registrar, Collection Care

On the Origin of Art is at MONA in Hobart, Tasmania, from 5 November 2016 to 17 April 2017.

Digitising an Audubon volume

Matthew Burgess and Wendy Richards assist with digitising an Audubon volume, photo by Joy Lai