For the Birds

The birds have a new roost.

For the first time ever at the North Carolina Museum of Art, all four volumes of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America are currently on view.

Believe me, this has been a long time coming. From the transfer of the portfolios from the State Library to the Museum in 1974 to the five-year conservation and restoration program of 2002–2007, this migration has been worthy of a National Geographic documentary.

In the past the Museum has had the ability to show only one volume at a time, in a single case, because of a variety of physical, spatial, and conservation–related restrictions.

The Restrictions

1. Size of the books: really big. Each page is 40 by 26 inches. Not for nothing are they known as the Double Elephant Folios.

2. Size of the case: again, really big73 inches long x 53 inches deep x 40 inches tall, including the protective glass hood.

3. Limited viewing. Only one page in one volume could be displayed at a time because of light restrictions.

4. Turning the pages—once each quarter—required:

  • 8 people from 3 departments.
  • 8 suction cups used by 4 strong people to remove the protective glass hood.
  • Constant repair of the protective glass hood due to seam breakage during each opening.
  • Extreme difficulty in closing the case due to a less-than-precise closure mechanism.

5. Size of the room: tiny. Less than 100 square feet—and it was really just a passageway between contemporary art galleries. In sum, there was no real gallery for the birds to roost in.

The Solutions

1. A dedicated gallery! The new 700-square-foot space allows all four volumes to be shown simultaneously. There are new in-gallery education panels and a reading area, and we can control light levels because the space is not a passageway.

2. New cases—four of them!—one for each volume. They’re each the same size as the old Audubon case, but with greatly improved construction. Pneumatic lifts allow art handlers to open the glass hoods with the greatest of ease (no more suction cups). Pullout decks give greater physical access to the books for safe page turning. And the cases close with a one-handed gentle mechanism and a self-locking system.

That’s right. Thanks to modern technology, what used to take eight people now takes only two or three. Our new cases, made by Glasbau Hahn of Germany, are the crème de la crème of museum casework and a capital investment that will last a lifetime. Unlock with a key, lift open the hood, pull out the deck, turn the page, add a new label, and close the case. It’s that easy. It now takes more time to coordinate the three people with a key than to get access to the book. Our work is more efficient, and the Museum can show more birds than ever before.

One word of caution for visitors to Audubon: you’re being watched. The new gallery is under surveillance by a few feathered friends on loan from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, so be warned—unless you foresee an Alfred Hitchcock moment in your future, please don’t touch the birds.

One Comment

  1. Jeffrey Demarest
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    I viewed the exhibit yesterday, January 30th, and, as always, was impressed with the work of John James Audubon. Additionally, I was very gratified to observe the gallery and display techniques. Thanks to the North Carolina Museum of Art, Audubon’s work will live on for decades, indeed, centuries to come. Is there an individual curator that is responsible for this outstanding feature of your excellent museum?

    Thank you.

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