In the footsteps of the shady naturalist Audubon: controversy is that factor with feathers | Culture | EUROtoday

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“This story begins with the disappearance of a dinosaur. The other day I entered the Natural History Museum in London, one of those places where I feel at home (or better) to come face to face with a monumental absence: the famous diplodocus in the lobby was missing. As if it had evaporated. And look how big a diplodocus is. Alarmed, I went to a boy who was handing out some information brochures about the museum. “Oh, it's in Coventry,” he informed me as if it have been essentially the most regular factor for a dinosaur to have gone for a stroll. And he added with British humor: “Don't worry, it hasn't been stolen.”

The iconic diplodocus skeleton (which is definitely a duplicate of the unique unearthed in Wyoming in 1899 and exhibited on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh) arrived on the London museum in 1905 and, after being exhibited in numerous rooms, since 1979 it occupied the place of honor within the entrance corridor. Dippy, as he’s affectionately recognized, has been on a tour of Britain visiting Dorchester, Birmingham, Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cardiff, Rochdale and Norwich, and, after briefly returning to the museum, he has left once more for a keep of three years in Coventry. Qualified dino-star and “the nation's favorite dinosaur,” Dippy He travels as an envoy of the London museum.

More inspired to know that the diplodocus is protected in Coventry (a metropolis that won’t have been scared by the arrival of a dinosaur, with what they’ve been by way of), and {that a} life-size bronze copy will quickly be inaugurated exterior the London museum, I continued my go to. And who I did meet was the well-known hunter, explorer and soldier Frederick Courteney Selous, famend white hunter (white hunter) and lion killer, who was shot lifeless by a sniper of the German colonial troops in Beho-Beho, Tanganyika, in 1917 (he’s buried below a tamarind tree subsequent to Rufiji). I’m an enormous fan of Selous (as was the a lot missed Javier Reverte), from whom Rider Haggard modeled his character of Allan Quatermain, and who’s the epitome of outdated African adventures together with safaris and wars with the Matabele. Curiously, one of many nice risks that Selous ran was as a toddler in London: he barely survived the well-known London catastrophe. skating of Regent's Park, when the ice gave approach and 200 skaters fell into the icy water, of which 40 died. Their different unhealthy moments have been all in higher climate. Well, it seems that each time I am going to the museum I greet the bronze statue of the hunter, the work of WR Colton, which has been on the left staircase in the back of the foyer since 1920 (beforehand, we’d say previous the diplodocus). And I more and more surprise how lengthy it would final, given the wave of decolonization and political correctness sweeping by way of Europe's museums and the truth that Selous killed tons of of elephants to commerce of their ivory. Anyway, for now Selous continues to be there, sporting a mannequin hat I'm on my method to King Solomon's mines and rifle on his arm, in a granite area of interest within the Matoppo Hills. Who knew that the diplodocus would depart first.

The statue of Selous at the Natural History Museum in London.
The statue of Selous on the Natural History Museum in London.

But if Captain Selous is advanced for the museum, what can we are saying in regards to the exhibition that’s devoted (till August) to the good American pioneer of ornithology John James Audubon (1785-1851), thought-about one of many nice naturalists, an artist of remarkable expertise who undertook the duty of portray all of the birds of North America and a driver of curiosity and fervour for birds. His two signature works are the monumental compendium in 4 enormous volumes The Birds of Americaalong with his extraordinary large-format work of birds into which he tried to instill revolutionary realism, dynamism and drama whereas capturing them with the best creative magnificence, and the accompanying work Ornithological Biographythe place he describes North American species in 5 volumes, together with some that he didn’t discover.

The naturalist and painter John James Audubon in the portrait made of him by John Syme in 1826. WHITE HOUSE COLLECTION
The naturalist and painter John James Audubon within the portrait manufactured from him by John Syme in 1826. WHITE HOUSE COLLECTION

Unfortunately (and therefore the thorny difficulty for the museum), the celebrity of Audubon, who was extremely valued by Darwin, who knew him, has been questioned in latest instances by his racist opinions and his unprejudiced looking of hundreds and hundreds of birds, actual massacres, so as to research them. Great adventurer and traveler on the time of colonization, tall, good-looking and daring, he was an enchanting mixture of scientist, author (he has actually lovely passages in his texts), explorer and man of the forest (smoking shotgun all the time in his arm). . But neither that, nor the truth that he was captivated with Walter Scott, whom he additionally knew personally, excuses him for having been an proprietor of black slaves and for defending slavery with none downside of conscience.

When he lived in Henderson, Kentucky, he had 9 slaves that he didn’t hesitate to place up on the market when he was going by way of a foul monetary streak. On one event, he acquired two blacks to assist him on an expedition down the Mississippi, and when it was completed he paid them off together with the boat. He himself relates his encounter in a Louisiana swamp with an escaped slave whom he satisfied to give up and personally accompanied to the plantation from which he had escaped. Come on, he was not a reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like blacks, he additionally didn’t think about Native Americans equal. Curiously, his personal id is unclear. Son of a French ship captain with a sugar plantation (and slaves) in Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti) and one in all his lovers, Audubon blurred his origins in a cloud of myths and lies, describing his mom as a stupendous girl of extraction. Spanish girl murdered throughout one of many frequent slave revolts on the island. Which has been found to be false (similar to the truth that he realized to color with Jacques-Louis David).

Image of the exhibition on Audubon at the Natural History Museum in London.
Image of the exhibition on Audubon on the Natural History Museum in London.

The exhibition devoted to him by the Natural History Museum in London is discreet. It is situated within the Nature Gallery, on the bottom ground, close to the place the plaque with a paratrooper and the motto “Spirit and Resistance” is situated, which reminds us that the museum was situated through the Second World War, in three sealed galleries, the Station XVB of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the group in command of mounting the dangerous clandestine missions in Nazi-occupied Europe. Of course the museum is a field of surprises. Graduated John James Adubon and his ‘Birds of America’the exhibition occupies three double show circumstances and consists of 5 plates of engravings from the naturalist's magnum opus, his portrait by Lance Calkin that reveals him stuffed with “frontier spirit” and dressed as if he have been occurring a date with Pocahontas, concerns about his technique of creative work, particulars of the printing course of (he used the biggest sheets of paper that existed, the so-called “double elephant”, measuring 97 x 65 centimeters), a quantity of his Ornithological Biography, and a stuffed chicken that appears prefer it's simply lifeless, the poor factor (the pink earwig or scissor-tailed flycatcher). Among the plates, the well-known one of many tricolor heron, described by Audubon as “delicate in form, beautiful in plumage, and full of grace in its movement”; and that of the American tantalum, the one stork native to North America and at the moment in recession. The exhibition praises Audubon, however doesn’t fail to level out the criticism that has rained down on him and deplores that the supremacist naturalist didn’t acknowledge how a lot the blacks and Native Americans whom he despised helped him in his analysis and explorations. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the controversy, that factor with feathers.

A woodpecker hunted by Audubon.
A woodpecker hunted by Audubon.

The exhibition isn’t the one point out of the naturalist within the museum. In the part Treasuresa range within the Cadogan Callery of twenty-two of the middle's most extraordinary objects, different Audubon prints are proven (in addition to one in all Captain Scott's three well-known eggs, that’s, these of the imperial penguin collected throughout his final expedition to Antarctica ).

By a kind of coincidences in life, visiting the exhibition about Audubon coincided with studying a beautiful e book about him, Audubon at Sea (University of Chicago Press, 2022), which collects the coastal and transatlantic adventures of the naturalist in his personal texts, offered, edited and annotated by Christopher Irmscher and a very good acquaintance, Richard J. King, whose splendid and up to date Sailing alone we already realized. Audubon—Nórdica revealed his Mississippi diary in 2021—is taken into account a terrestrial ornithologist (and the phrase is value it), who traveled by way of the inside of North America birding (and taking pictures). But this e book reminds us that he additionally spent loads of time at sea (12 crossings of the Atlantic and quite a few voyages alongside the North American coast) watching seabirds (and taking pictures), though he was afraid of the ocean and bought seasick.

Roseate spoonbill, one of the birds painted by Audubon in his 'Birds of America'.
Roseate spoonbill, one of many birds painted by Audubon in his 'Birds of America'.

On the voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool in 1826 aboard the schooner Delos, of which he left a diary, noticed whales and sharks, and described the fishing and agony of dolphins and different creatures on deck with a deplorable lack of mercy. He additionally described on a visit to the Florida Keys a grisly bloodbath of pelicans (he explains using the attribute membrane below the beak of those birds, as soon as dried, as a helpful bag for gunpowder and bullets). But what made me most unhappy was studying within the story of his final journey to Labrador, the atrocious extermination he perpetrated on the Perroquet Islands of puffins, these pleasant little birds that can’t however encourage tenderness. Accompanied by two sailors and carrying a number of double-barreled shotguns, Audubon shoots hundreds of nesting birds for a whole hour, noting that, wow, it seems to be like half the world's inhabitants is there. “How many puffins I killed (puffins) at that time, I take the liberty of leaving it to your imagination,” he proclaims, satisfied with the carnage.

A pair of Atlantic puffins stop near their nest burrow on the Farne Islands.  Each spring, these small Northumberland islands attract more than 100,000 breeding pairs of seabirds.
A pair of Atlantic puffins stop near their nest burrow on the Farne Islands. Each spring, these small Northumberland islands attract more than 100,000 breeding pairs of seabirds.Evie Easterbook (London Natural History Museum)

“Ambiguous hero at best,” Irmscher and King describe Audubon in the coda of their book. They remember that in 1830, the naturalist and his wife transferred to a black woman and her two children – “who belonged to us,” Audubon noted – to some friends so that they would use them when they went to England for a while. In his talks, he went from imitating the voice of birds to singing “the cry of the red man” as if the Native Americans were just another species of fauna. The authors point out that “Audubon was certainly not a Saint Francis of Assisi” and “he hunted many more birds than he needed for his artistic and scientific task.” And they very rightly conclude that the naturalist, who died in 1851 in New York with a mind ravaged by dementia like a field under a plague of starlings, was undoubtedly a man of his time, as they say to exonerate someone, but he certainly failed to be, as the truly great tend to be, a man ahead of his time.

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