John James Audubon
Passenger Pigeon, 1829
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; The Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller Audubon Collection
In a cautionary tale bridging art and science, an exhibition at Auburn University's Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art looks at species that have gone or are going extinct in the world around us. "The Art of Vanishing," on view through Oct. 5, highlights the importance of conservation and natural habitat preservation.
The exhibition was inspired by Project Passenger Pigeon, a national program created by scientists, educators, conservationists, artists, musicians and filmmakers working together to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction Sept. 1.
"The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird species in North America, if not the world, said Scott Bishop, curator of education at the museum. "I was struck to learn that one can point to the exact day – even the exact time – when the last representative of a once prolific species died. Her name was Martha, and she died in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914 at 1 p.m."
Bishop said after learning more about the fate of the passenger pigeon, she envisioned curating an exhibition around the theme of extinct and endangered species using the museum's Audubon collection. Knowing the university's Natural History Museum could be an enormous resource, she contacted Brian Helms, its collection manager, to explore how they could collaborate on the project.
The result is an exhibition that features specimens of extinct and endangered species from Auburn's Museum of Natural History and selections from the art museum's Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller Audubon Collection. In addition, private collectors loaned works to the museum depicting animals brought back from the brink of extinction.
"John James Audubon meticulously described his subjects' anatomy, habitat, typical movement and sometimes their diet," said Bishop. "The works are scientific records of mammals and birds, and also of plants, but they are also beautifully rendered and finely crafted works of art."
The Auburn University Museum of Natural History and Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics partnered with the art museum for the collaborative exhibition to offer the Auburn community a real-life perspective of species extinction, discovery and conservation.
"Displays include many specimens that are considered extinct, of conservation concern or recently discovered," Helms said. "These specimens showcase the high levels of endemism – plants or animals unique to a particular location – found in Alabama and beyond, the unprecedented levels of human-induced extinction and even highlight some conservation success stories."
Faculty and staff of the Museum of Natural History are actively involved with state and federal agencies in managing, monitoring and conserving biodiversity as well as discovering and describing new species.
"It is a tremendous opportunity to work with the art museum as it highlights the importance of natural history collection and showcases the intersection of art and science in such a meaningful and poignant manner," said Jason Bond, director of the Museum of Natural History and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.
Pictured here are installation shots of "The Art of Vanishing." Cases contain specimens from Auburn University's Museum of Natural History.
"Artists and scientists both describe the world," said Bishop. "The difference is perhaps a matter of intention, but both groups bring careful observation and interpretation to their tasks."
Helms will conduct a gallery talk Sept. 3 at noon. On Sept. 4 at 5 p.m., a university faculty panel will address species loss and biodiversity, and the interface with art, culture and social systems. The documentary film, "From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction" will be screened Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. and Oct. 2 at 3 p.m. For more information on events in conjunction with the exhibition, go to their website.
Admission is free courtesy of JCSM Business Partners. For additional information about the museum's upcoming exhibitions and programs, visit www.jcsm.auburn.edu or call (334) 844-1484.
— By Charlotte Hendrix, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and Lindsay Miles, College of Sciences and Mathematics
Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2014