Just in Time for Thanksgiving: A New Audubon Exhibit With the Gallant Wild Turkey as the Lead

The Wild Turkey graces the first plate of Birds of America. Illustration: John James Audubon

No one wants to get up close and personal with a real Wild Turkey. But starting today, the New-York Historical Society offers an appealing alternative: a chance for visitors to pore over John James Audubon’s life-sized watercolor of the bird. The stately fowl kicks off a gallery dedicated to the Birds of America, a collection of 435 jumbo paintings hand-crafted by Audubon in the 1800s. (The book has since been reprinted countless times.) Every month, the historical society will feature a new display centered around the next page in the series, for a total run time of 36 years and 3 months.

As each new bird takes center stage, the curator will complement it with related sketches, documents, and artifacts. Luckily, the New-York Historical Society has enough accessories to keep things fresh through 400-plus redesigns: Its collection of Audubon paraphernalia, known as “Auduboniana,” is the largest in the world. Not only does it own every original watercolor from Birds of America, it also has the engravings—or plates—of each illustration, which were used to reproduce Audubon’s work for wealthy art collectors. 

Despite the daunting workload, Roberta Olson, the curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, is excited to design such a long-lived exhibit. "It’s been my dream for a very long time," she says. The idea first came to her as a visiting curator in 1989, and she's been aiming to make it a reality since she became a curator the following year. 

The resulting experience is as intimate as Olson intended. The exhibit room is a former storage room that the museum gutted and renovated specifically for the display. At the center, in a specially designed case, lies volume one of Birds of America, open to the featured bird's folio. The subject is also animated by its songs and calls, which play in the background, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Combine that with the dim lighting—the paintings are too sensitive to sustain anything harsher—and you've got yourself a solid date spot, perfect for peeking into after a walk through Central Park.

The immersive nature of the exhibit is also meant to make visitors think deeply about conservation, just as Audubon did. The display on the Wild Turkey, for instance, includes notes about the North American population's ups and downs over the years. Later, informative displays will drive home the loss of extinct species like the Carolina Parakeet. “Those will have all kinds of bells and whistles going off,” Olson says. 

Back in the 1800s, people learned to appreciate the beauty and needs of American birds by fawning over Audubon's vivid images. “He really hooked people,” Olson says. She hopes that if the naturalist could do it then, he can still do it today, tomorrow, and for the next 36-plus years.

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