Bringing Audubon to the Classroom

This is a guest post written by Devon Burger, a Stanford undergraduate and the Library of Congress 2016 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

John J. Audubon

John J. Audubon

I first studied John James Audubon in my sophomore year of college during a survey course on 19th Century U.S. History. Born in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) in 1785, Audubon moved to France with his father in 1791 due to rising tensions between colonists and slaves. He then lived in France until 1803, when he emigrated to the United States because he faced conscription into Napoleon’s army. Once in the United States, he tried his hand at many things: he farmed, opened a general store, and later ran a grain mill. He briefly opened a natural history museum of his own, and for a period of time, Audubon also made a living as an artist painting death bed portraits. Of course, Audubon is most famously known for his compendium of paintings of all North American birds. To do this, he shot birds, and then held them together with wires while painting. Ultimately, Audubon produced The Birds of America, a collection of over 400 bird species. My class studied Audubon as a way to situate our learning within the context, events, and culture of early 19th century America, but when I came across the Library’s digitized Audubon prints, I began to think about the many ways a teacher could use the same images in other fields.

Carolina Turtle Dove. Drawing by John Audubon; Color Engraving by R. Havell

Carolina Turtle Dove. Drawing by John Audubon; Color Engraving by R. Havell

Consider Audubon’s images as part of a science curriculum. Through these images, students can learn about biological classification and study specific species. Ask students to research a bird that Audubon printed, including its taxonomy, habitat, feeding and breeding habits, identifying features, and bird call. Students can also explore evolution, natural selection, and environmental change with Audubon’s birds; several of them are extinct today, so students can research why that might have happened.

From the perspective of an art class, students can study the images to see how art has evolved. Because Audubon’s birds were posed with wire, they may look relatively unrealistic to students today; however, at the time, this was the most realistic image of a bird anyone had seen. Students can photograph birds and paint their own images, noticing the way photography has changed the way we capture specific moments in time—or the movement of living creatures.

Of course, these images can be used in other ways as well. Students can discuss the progression of technology: What do images of birds look like today? Compare these images with modern photography or with virtual reality. How might birds be shown in the future? They can begin to wrestle with questions of ethics when working with animals as well: What does it mean for a naturalist and ornithologist to kill animals in order to paint them? What is the best way for scientists to work with animals?

With the Audubon prints, students can view one source through many lenses. How do you imagine using these images in your field?

 

Five Questions with Jennifer Cutting, Folklife Specialist, American Folklife Center

Folklife – songs, stories, jokes, crafts, and dances which have been handed down from generation to generation – are the unwritten history of the American people, and they help us understand what it is like to belong to a group, whether that group is a family, an ethnic group, a regional group, or a group of workers in the same occupation.

Five Questions with Ken Drexler, Digital Reference Specialist, Digital Reference Team

Recently I updated our guide to World War I materials, which contains links to online photographs, documents, newspapers, films, sheet music, and sound recordings from the war. With the centennial of the U.S. entry into WWI approaching, I expect that the WWI guide will be particularly useful for teachers and students.

Five questions with Catalina Gómez, Reference Librarian, Hispanic Reading Room

I am in charge of recommending collections from Colombia, Venezuela, as well as material on Latin American art for the Library; and I work on the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, a collection of audio recordings of prominent poets and prose writers, which the Hispanic Division began curating in the early 1940s. I have been working on an effort to digitize and bring online access to some of these literary audio archives.

Five Questions with James Wintle, Reference Librarian, Performing Arts Reading Room

One of the biggest reasons I love working at the Library of Congress is that my curiosity is sparked on a daily basis. Most recently, I have been fascinated by the music manuscripts of the early American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861). He was one of the first professional composers in the United States and was known as the “Beethoven of America.”