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Audubon, Ruthven Highlight 200th Anniversary Of Natural History Museum

Two of John Ruthven's eagle series, on loan from Northern Kentucky University.
Two of John Ruthven's eagle series, on loan from Northern Kentucky University.

John James Audubon is famous for his seminal work Birds of America. In Cincinnati, the naturalist, painter and ornithologist is heralded as the first employee of the Western Museum Society, which would later become the Cincinnati Museum Center.

The museum is celebrating its 200th anniversary with In the Audubon Tradition: Birds of A Feather,an exhibit featuring more than 250 original pieces of art, highlighting works by Audubon and Cincinnati-native John Ruthven, among others.

"This is a big event in the world of museums," says exhibit guest curator DeVere Burt, director emeritus of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science. "There are very few of us that are 200 years old in this country. This particular institution... one of the most famous books in the world originated right here on Oct. 13, 1820."

Burt says that's the date Audubon committed himself to cataloging the birds of North America. The exhibit includes one of the few intact copies of the double-elephant portfolio, Birds of America, in four volumes on loan from The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

"It's an amazing piece of work," says exhibit guest curator DeVere Burt, director emeritus of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science. "It took him 25 to 30 years to finish it."

Audubon traveled the country, painting on the largest paper he could find, sourced from England, so he could faithfully reproduce life-size images of his specimens.

The exhibit includes more than 250 works of art, and scientific specimens
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The exhibit includes more than 250 works of art, and scientific specimens

"His work pre-dates photography and high-quality optics so he had to collect the bird. His goal was to paint as precise an image of the bird as he could, so he needed it fresh in his hands before the eye color faded, before the fleshy parts of the bird faded and lost its color," Burt explains.

Each book is 21.5 x 39.5 inches (hence the term "elephant") and weighs 40 pounds. Burt says copies in private collections have sold for as much as $8.5 to 11.5 million. "It's considered among the sixth most valuable and rarest books in the world by bibliophiles who know such things," Burt adds.

They're displayed behind glass, but the library is also loaning its digital version, a life size computer monitor made to look like a book that allows guests to flip through the folio with the wave of a hand.

The library's digital copy of the Birds of America double elephant folio allows visitors to turn the pages of this rare book.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The library's digital copy of the Birds of America double elephant folio allows visitors to turn the pages of this rare book.

Displayed alongside Audubon's books and original paintings are the works of renowned Cincinnati wildlife artist and naturalist, John Ruthven.

Referred to as the "20th century Audubon," Ruthven got his start making drawings in places like Eden and Ault parks. His paintings showcase the natural world. Included in the exhibit are his four-piece collection of eagles, and his depiction of "Martha," the last passenger pigeon - faithfully reproduced in grand scale by ArtWorks on the side of Vine St. building downtown.

The exhibit showcases 81 top wildlife artists from North America.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The exhibit showcases 81 top wildlife artists from North America.

Beyond Audubon and Ruthven, the exhibit includes works by 81 contemporary wildlife artists such as Mary Louis Holt. There's also a daguerreotype portrait of Audubon, historic artifacts and documents, and scientific specimens, including a Great Auk, a now-extinct bird painted by both Audubon and Ruthven.

In the Audubon Tradition: Birds of A Featherruns Sept. 13, 2019 - Jan. 5, 2020.

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