Audubon's beautiful birds go on show, but his darker backstory won't go unseen - Alison Campsie

His work has been been widely celebrated for the best part of 200 years and next month, the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) will do the same, although with some clear revisions.

Naturalist, ornithologist and artist John James Audubon has long been famed for his breath-taking depictions of bird species he recorded on his extensive travels and which illustrated his seminal book, Birds of America.

Audubon’s Birds of America, which opens on February 12, will showcase 46 unbound prints from the NMS collection, most of which have never been on display before, as well as a rare bound volume of the book.

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A plate from Audubon's Birds of America, with an exhibition of the ornithologist's work to open at National Museum of Scotland next month. PIC: Creative Commons.
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Turn the pages and you’ll see owls bursting into flight, songbirds peering out of trees, and eagles feasting on their prey. Such are their appeal John Lewis does a line in Audubon prints and, while the images would illuminate any room, they could also be a bit of a talker given aspects of his past that are now being given greater attention.

The exhibition comes as debate surrounding the legacy of Audubon shifts and museums work to decolonise their collections and exhibitions. Long considered an all-adventuring American icon, his history of owning enslaved people and stealing skulls from graves around the world to advance theories of race and biology has risen to the top over the past couple of years.

The Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) announced in October it would change its name due to the “pain” he caused in the past. Meanwhile, Aberdeen University revealed in November it’s looking to repatriate nine skulls held in its museum collection that were stolen by Audubon.

The skulls ended up in Aberdeen due to his friendship with William McGillivray, a professor of natural history at Marischal College, who edited the text for Birds of America after they met in Edinburgh.

Audubon visited Edinburgh several times in the late 1820s and made a number of connections. Dr Robert Knox, of Burke and Hare infamy, writer Sir Walter Scott, and phrenologist George Combe were among them.

These connections will be documented by NMS, as will Audubon’s past as a slaver. An interview with the Audubon Naturalist Society will also feature. These shouldn’t detract from the birds he brought so magically to life, but behind their beauty lies a backstory which now cannot go unseen.

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