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Bringing Audubon to the Classroom

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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?


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