by Mark McGowan
“Examining Audubon,” a spring 2008 exhibition at the NIU Art Museum curated with the assistance of five Museum Studies graduate students as a capstone class project, has won statewide honors from the Illinois Association of Museums.
NIU received the “Superior Achievement Award” in exhibits, one of nine categories.
Peter Olson, assistant director of the NIU Art Museum; NIU Museum Studies certificate recipient Angie Schroeder; NIU Museum Studies student Sandy Denninger; and Peter Van Ael, coordinator of the School of Art’s Jack Olson Gallery and the NIU Museum Studies program, represented NIU at the Sept. 26 awards ceremony in Elmhurst during the IAM annual conference.
Held April 8 to May 10, the exhibition introduced visitors to the life and travels of John James Audubon, his contributions to the fields of ornithology and ecology and the commercialization of his illustrations after his death. Audubon’s name has become internationally synonymous with conservation.
“It’s the goal of the Museum Studies program to teach our students best practices and give them a hands-on, real-life experience,” said Van Ael, instructor of the ART 556 course “Museum Exhibitions and Interpretation.”
“These students very quickly learned that in order to make this successful they would have to trust each other working as a team and put in the necessary time,” Van Ael added. “They put in a lot of time. They came in weekend hours. Everybody pulled together. Everybody helped. Everybody participated in all the aspects, and it showed.”
Students Denninger, Betsy Giles, Sandra Lang, Jessica McTague and Schroeder were given the basic exhibition topic – considering the semester’s time constraints, Van Ael said, “we had to take that first decision out of the equation” – but the task of developing the physical exhibition was theirs alone.
“I’m happy, excited and proud. We heard several compliments at the opening reception, and it was apparent that everybody was impressed,” Schroeder said. “Audubon was such a fascinating character, and to learn more about him was interesting. Also, the artwork was just incredible.”
Preliminary choices that the graduate students made included baseline research, the development of a storyline and identification of works to display. “Every exhibition presents several possible stories to tell,” Van Ael said.
“But to have a successful exhibition, you need to pick just one of those storylines to make a product that is coherent,” he said. “The nucleus of the story that the class decided to tell – that the entire exhibition hinged on, and ultimately became the mission statement for the exhibition – was that the work of Audubon really created a bridge between art and science that contributed to the fields of ornithology, ecology and conservation.”
Olson’s vast knowledge of Audubon made his contributions to the exhibition development as an “expert consultant” invaluable, Van Ael said.
Upon completion of the storyline, the class designed the exhibition’s layout; developed educational programming for children; created printed pieces such as brochures, post cards and press releases; worked on fabrication, glazing, installation and lighting; and organized the opening reception.
Prints were borrowed from several local and regional, private and public sources. Many show birds, of course, but others depict the quadrupeds Audubon began drawing in 1839 after he cemented his reputation as a superior artist of nature.
Timelines and maps of the artist’s travels were created and displayed. “This allowed visitors to get a sense of where Audubon would have seen what,” Van Ael said.
An original clipping from a Boston newspaper that reported on one of Audubon’s trips to the city was available for inspection. Audubon’s voice was incorporated in the exhibition through quotes from his diaries placed strategically in the galleries. One section dealt with how Audubon compared as an artist to some of his contemporaries, and what ultimately made him stand out as a significant figure. An audio-visual display demonstrated the process Audubon invented to pose freshly killed specimens into naturalistic poses.
Children who attended the one-time educational program built birdhouses, sketched birds, played animal charades, learned about wilderness survival from Audubon’s own writings and joined in a “scavenger hunt” for answers available in the exhibition displays. The activities corresponded directly with requirements for nature- and wildlife-related merit badges earned by Cub Scouts and Brownies.
Illinois Roads Scholar and Audubon impersonator Brian “Fox” Ellis attended the opening gala to bring the legendary conservationist to life. A compact disc of bird noises played continuously in the background.
Illinois Association of Museums award judges appreciated the exhibition’s many facets as well as its ability to attract different visitors to the NIU Art Museum.
“They look for projects that actually broaden an audience for an institution,” Van Ael said. “Audubon, who was also significant in the scientific realm, expands the audience for an art museum. That made the difference between ‘superior’ and an ‘award of excellence.’ ”
The “Examining Audubon” exhibition was the second collaboration between ART 556 students and the NIU Art Museum. The first project focused on German artist, mathematician and educator Josef Albers.