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Shooting Birds

Dickinson, Ott, & Aoki’s writing on Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum called to mind an experience I had while visiting the Audubon House in Key West a number of years ago.  I had always known about John James Audubon and his artwork depicting birds.  To me, his name was synonymous with conservation, nature, art, and birds.  I loved that he produced so many detailed artworks of birds.  And then I was disillusioned.

What happened is that the person working at the Audubon House told me how Audubon was able to make such detailed artistic studies of birds.  He used to shoot them.  And this person told me this specifically to impress upon me the seeming incongruity of Audubon shooting birds and being associated with conservation.  I was blown away (pun intended).

Subsequently, I have been able to look at this again and I realized that I overlooked a very important fact: historical context.  The man lived from 1785 to 1851.  The mores of the time were different.  His purpose probably wasn’t conservation, but rather artistic and/or scientific pursuit.  So associating him with conservation wasn’t his doing and his method for getting a model was not all that extraordinary for his time.




What a fascinating realization Kristi. I grew up in New Orleans, La, which is home to three different Audubon institutes :the zoo, the aquarium, and insectorium. As a child I learned of what I am now realizing is the “idealized” version of Audubon…that he was a conservationist and nature-lover. I gathered this notion due to the many exhibits of his texts and pieces of artwork/ These artifacts were compiled to tell a narrative of his life that depicted him as possessing those qualities I mentioned. You are absolutely right that he lived in an entirely different time; therefore, in our modern eyes he was a conservationist. It is truly amazing how museum exhibitions can tell exactly the kind of story of an individual or an event that they desire due to Helmer’s step 6, examine what is missing. Had information regarding Audubon’s practice of shooting down birds to use for his artwork been present in the exhibits I visited as a child, I would have had an entirely different idea of who he was.

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