“Audubon ‘Birds of America’ Exhibit Opens at Field Museum” by S.M. O’Connor

The Field Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit, Audubon’s Birds of America, showcases a giant book with life-sized drawings of birds: a rare double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, along with Audubon’s travel journal and specimens of some of the birds he brought to life. “Double elephant” refers to the size of the paper.  It was important to Audubon to publish life-sized engravings of each bird he had drawn.  Only 120 complete sets of Audubon’s 435 engravings, called plates, exist today.

The Birds of America, published as highly prized hand-colored prints from 1827 to 1838 by Franco-American painter and ornithologist J.J. Audubon (1785-1851), forever after influenced the art of wildlife illustration and is the world’s most famous book devoted to birds. In 1826, Audubon set off on a mission to illustrate every bird in North America. He discovered over 100 species on his twelve-year-long expedition and even illustrated some bird species that have since become rare or extinct, such as whooping cranes and passenger pigeons.

The Field Museum’s copy of the four-volume The Birds of America was a gift of Mary W. Runnells in 1969.  They are bound systematically rather than in the usual plate order number.  It originally belonged to the Audubon family’s physician in London, Dr. Benjamin Phillips, and is one of only three copies that had thirteen extra composite plates.  One of those three copies belonged to Audubon himself and is now in the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas.

Normally, since 1981, The Field Museum has kept its copy in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room.  In 1999, The Field Museum received Audubon’s manuscript journal from 1826, a gift from the Charles W. Palmer family.  The John James Audubon Collection also includes a set of 150 matted plates from the first edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (publishes from 1845 to 1848), which was a gift from Brooks McCormick in 2002.  Further, the ornithological collection of Field Museum President Edward Ayer includes a copy of this edition and a copy of the 1860 Bien edition of The Birds of America; A Synopsis of the Birds of North America, published in 1839; and multiple octavo editions of the works Ornithological Biography and The Birds of America.[1]

The Field Museum stated, “Imagine a book so massive it takes three people to open the glass display case to access it, yet so delicate the three-foot-tall pages are only turned once a week to ensure preservation. The magnificent watercolor paintings of nearly every bird in North America are intricate and detailed – one page capturing a solo Wild Turkey standing proudly, another featuring both a male and female American Goldfinch in the middle of a cheerful song.”

In March of 2000, Sheik Saud Al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar, purchased a double elephant edition of Birds of America at auction through Christie’s in New York City for $8,800,000.  In 2010, someone paid £7,300,000 ($7,300,000) at auction through Sotheby’s in London for a complete first edition.  Two years later, on January 20, 2012, an anonymous American purchased a complete copy of the first edition at auction through Christie’s in New York City from the heirs of William Bentinck (1768-1854), 4th Duke of Portland (1809-1854), for $7,900,000.

“At a time when photography was still at its infancy and not accessible for most, scientific journals heavily relied on paintings and drawings to illustrate animals,” stated Diana Duncan, The Field Museum’s Technical Services Librarian. “Birds were not seen as art subjects, so Audubon’s unique and beautiful, life-size renderings were impactful not only in the scientific community for capturing the birds at their most natural, but also in the art world.”

“Brooker Gallery is a small, gem-like gallery on the museum’s upper level, and its walls will feature floor-to-ceiling replicas of Audubon’s most famous images. Visitors will also be able to view more of Audubon’s work through a slideshow presentation. A display case will feature actual Ivory-billed woodpeckers from Field Museum collections, which have almost certainly vanished from North America now,” stated Jaap Hoogstraten, Director of Exhibitions at The Field Museum.

Audubon’s Birds of America opened on Friday, April 19, 2019, and will be on display in The Field Museum’s T. Kimball and Nancy N. Brooker Gallery until Sunday, December 1, 2019. This exhibit is included with Basic Admission (general admission) and will be presented in both English and Spanish.  The Field Museum created the exhibit Audubon’s Birds of America. The exhibit is part of The Field Museum’s 125th Anniversary celebration, supported by: Aon, GCM Grosvenor, ITW, Magellan Corporation, and the Wirtz Corporation.

1.(C) Field Museum photo by Michelle Kuo.Figure 1 Credit: Michelle Kuo © The Field Museum Caption: The Field Museum normally keeps its double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room.

2.(C) Field Museum photo by Michelle KuoFigure 2 Credit: Michelle Kuo © The Field Museum Caption: The exhibit Audubon’s Birds of America is in The T. Kimball and Nancy N. Brooker Gallery.

3.(C) Field Museum photo by Michelle Kuo (1)Figure 3 Credit: Michelle Kuo © The Field Museum Caption: The Field Museum’s copy of the four-volume Birds of America was a gift of Mary W. Runnells.




The Newberry Library, an independent research library on the North Side of Chicago, formerly had an elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, bur transferred it to The John Crerar Library, which is now part of The University of Chicago, under the Metropolitan Library Agreement.  In 1890, Dr. William Frederick Poole, Librarian of The Newberry Library, purchased the book collection of Henry Probasco, a Cincinnati businessman, politician, and bibliophile whom Poole had met while head of the Cincinnati Public Library.[2]  The Probasco Collection included 112 incunabula; illuminated manuscripts; the first, second, and fourth folios of Shakespeare; and the four-volume set of the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America.

In 1896, the Chicago Public Library, The Newberry Library, and The John Crerar Library had reached an agreement by which they would divide the work of developing collections. Under the Metropolitan Library Agreement, the Chicago Public Library would concentrate on general literature and Chicagoana, the Newberry Library would concentrate on the humanities, and the John Crerar Library would concentrate on the biology, medicine, and physical science. Between 1896 and 1913, the Newberry Library donated one-quarter of its 1896 collection – scientific and medical books – to The John Crerar Library, so The Newberry Library could concentrate on being a humanities research library.  That same year, the Newberry transferred to the Crerar its holdings in science, industry, and social sciences.  Two years later, the Crerar gained the Newberry’s ornithological holdings, which included the Probasco copy of Audubon’s Birds of America.  In 1995, restoration of the Probasco copy of Audubon’s Birds of North America, made possible by a grant from the University of Chicago Women’s Board, reached completion.  The Crerar Library copy of The Birds of North America is housed in the Joseph Regenstein Library’s Department of Special Collections.[3]


The Field Museum has over 30,000,000 artifacts and specimens.  Over 150 scientists, conservators, and collections staff members work there.  The Field Museum is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its foundation.  Open 364 days a year (every day but Christmas Day) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., the last admission time is 4:00 p.m.

The address is 1400 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60605.  The phone number is (312) 922-9410.  The Website U.R.L. is https://www.fieldmuseum.org/.



[1] Edward E. Ayer (1841-1927) was a railroad-tie magnate who persuaded Marshall Field I (1834-1906) to donate money for what became The Field Museum of Natural History. Ayer served as its first President of the Field Columbian Museum from 1894 to 1898.  He remained on the Board of Trustees until 1927.  Ayer was also a patron of the Chicago Historical Society, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Newberry Library.


[2] Dr. William Frederick Poole (1821-1894), who had been the first Librarian of the Chicago Public Library from 1873 to 1887, served as the first Librarian of The Newberry Library from 1887 until his death in 1894.

[3] The University of Chicago, “Audubon Prints” (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/crerar/audubon.html) Accessed 03/27/12

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