Audubon ‘Birds’ exhibit takes flight at Van Pelt

Patrons of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center can catch a glimpse of one of the most rare books and nuanced depictions of scientific documentation in the world.

“The Birds of America,” a book of detailed, life-size illustrations by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, is on permanent display on the first floor of Van Pelt, next to the Information Desk.

“We wanted the entire Penn community to recognize some of the extraordinary riches of the Penn Libraries, particularly in our Special Collections Center,” says Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers. “Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’ is a beautiful piece that’s not only historically important—it’s a piece of art.”

Renowned for its scientific, artistic, and historical merit, “Birds of America” is the product of Audubon’s quest to paint every North American bird in its natural habit, eventually documenting 1,065 individual birds and 506 different species. The book was printed over a 12-year period, from 1827 to 1838, and Penn’s set was donated to the University in parts by Edwin H. Vare, Jr. from 1957 to 1959.

Andrea Gottschalk, exhibition designer and coordinator for the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, says the exhibit is designed to display one open spread at a time, and will rotate on the second Wednesday of every month. The bird currently on display is the Black-Bellied Daster, “Plotus Anhinga.”

Displaying the six-volume double elephant folio set, measuring in at 56” by 39” when opened, presented several challenges for the exhibition designers. After designing a case that would accommodate the size of the volumes, a conservator cleaned the pages and made minor repairs to prepare the set for display.

“Rather than sit it upright, ours is laying down fairly flat so that we’re not putting much stress on its spine,” Gottschalk says. “The book is also recessed into the case so that it’s approachable for people of different heights, and so the whole spread can be visible.”

Gottschalk says the exhibit appeals to a variety of audiences, ranging from book historians for its unique build, to natural scientists for the careful depiction of species’ characteristics in the illustrations.

“‘Birds of America’ is an example of very fine printmaking that isn’t always seen,” she says. “The scale of the book is very unusual, and you don’t ever see anything printed this big in this many volumes. Penn’s set is a particularly fine copy—the colors are very vibrant, and these bird illustrations are amazing for their detail.”

Birds of America