New Exhibit Looks Into Drawing as a Way of Knowing Birds

Housing one of the largest and most taxonomically complete bird collections in the world, the Academy welcomes visitors to celebrate ornithology — or the study of birds — in our newest exhibition, Illuminating Birds: Drawing as a Way of Knowing.

Through illustrations, rare books, specimens and artifacts that document the beginnings of avian study in the United States, Illuminating Birds showcases just some of the fabulous ornithological works in the Academy’s rich collections while also inspiring visitors to create their own. 

Artworks by Alexander Wilson, Elizabeth and John Gould, Edward Lear and Louis Agassiz Fuertes — as well as many others — from the Academy’s archives and collections are on display, documenting the beginnings of the scientific study of birds, as well as addressing the complex historical and cultural aspects they carry. Colorful early birding field guides and hand-painted magic lantern slides demonstrate the role that illustration has played in popularizing birding and advancing the conservation movement.


How many tries does it take to get it right? 
Nobody really knows, until you’ve gotten it 
wrong. You try, you fail, you try again, and 
perhaps you’ll succeed. But most likely you 
will fail. Again. And again. And again, until 
you are so tired of trying, striving, driving, 
and longing that to try again, won’t happen again.

How many ways can you get it wrong? Dozens. 
Hundreds. Thousands, millions, and billions of 
ways, but the mockingbird gets it wrong every day. 
Every song, every note, imperfect, transposed. How 
then, do they continue to try? Each imperfection, 
each wrong in their hundreds and thousands, renders 
the world richer for their very flaws. Each song, 
each note, each mimic and each mock does not 
diminish, but augment. Perfection is the goal, but 
imperfection is the inevitable, yet beautiful, result.

by George Green, Drexel Writers Room student and bird enthusiast

Surrounded by historical artworks, visitors are encouraged to artistically engage through nature journaling and drawing. The exhibit’s in-house Avian Art Studio will inspire creative exploration of specimens, field notes, an extraordinary “commonplace book,” feathers and prompts developed by the Drexel’s Writers Room and many others.

Over the course of the exhibition, visitors will be able to watch the development of a mural unfold by Avian Artist-in-Residence Jane Kim. The Academy, in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia, has commissioned Kim to create a new mural for Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, reflecting local concerns related to biodiversity loss and climate change.

A visual artist, science illustrator and the founder of Ink Dwell, Kim has created large-scale public art across the country, including the Wall of Birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and has produced works for the National Aquarium, the de Young Museum and Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. She is the creator of the Migrating Mural campaign, a series of public installations that highlight wildlife along migration corridors shared with people.

With more than 7,000 different species of birds represented in our collections, the Academy continues to be a leading institution in global ornithological research. This exhibit not only celebrates our universal wonder and appreciation of birds, but also examines the scientific, historical and artistic implications of their study. Part gallery and part creative studio, Illuminating Birds explores drawing as a way of knowing birds and understanding the natural world around us.

One comment

  1. This exhibition sounds absolutely fascinating! As a bird enthusiast, I’m thrilled to hear about the Academy’s extensive bird collection and their focus on ornithology. The combination of illustrations, rare books, specimens, and artifacts must create a truly immersive experience for visitors.

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