The Vanishing Worlds of Audubon

March 3, 2023 - May 31, 2023
DML - Treasure Room

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When John James Audubon was working on his four-volume Birds of America in the 1820s–1830s, ornithological conservation of any kind was hardly discussed, particularly when the birds he described seemed so overwhelmingly abundant: “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.” Since then, human threats to avian wildlife have mounted, as many species have been hunted to extinction or near-extinction for food, sport, and fashion—or threatened by urban development, climate change, and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. 

Although Audubon’s name is now synonymous with bird conservation, and his work remains a monument to book illustration and production, his legacy is a problematic one. He and his family held enslaved people, and his racist views and actions have received much-needed attention and evaluation in recent years. The ornithological community also has reassessed his stature as a conservationist in light of his practice of killing thousands of birds to create his illustrations.

With rare books, artifacts, and contemporary artistic work, this exhibition explores conservation’s emergence in the late Victorian era through challenges to habitat protection today in Southern California. On display is some of the efforts of many artists, scientists, libraries, and museums working to advance a more complete understanding of conservation history while responding to the dire issues facing birds. 

Throughout the spring semester, the USC Libraries are partnering with Visions & Voices on a suite of programs exploring the resilience and vulnerabilities of avian wildlife through discussions, birding expeditions, and a creative workshop.