Recently, the McClung Museum debuted the miniature exhibition Masterful Mammals in order to showcase lesser known Audubon prints from our permanent collection. While Audubon is well known for his birds prints, which the museum has showcased many times and has amassed a substantial representation of within our permanent collection, the museum is taking this opportunity through the display of these lesser known prints to be mindful of other lesser known facts about Audubon himself.
Apart from completing several volumes dedicated to the four-legged mammals of North America, Audubon had other aspects to his character that are not as widely known or discussed. While tacking these issues oftentimes proves difficult, as a museum we feel it is best to acknowledge them.
It has been well documented that Audubon held white supremacist views and enslaved at least nine people during his lifetime. While many scholars have speculated about Audubon’s heritage, he was born in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) to a plantation owner and a mistress of Creole/African descent, he used his white passing privilege to justify his beliefs and actions against people of color.
While messy and complex, this history is necessary to reconcile as we, not only at the museum but the broader art and ornithology worlds, move towards more transparent and ethical practices in showcasing, displaying, and discussing Audubon’s work. While it is impossible to know if Audubon relied on Indigenous and local knowledge about flora and fauna to complete Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (given most of the work for these volumes was actually done by his son), scholars have noted that Audubon relied on Indigenous and Black knowledge while completing his magnum opus, The Birds of America, as Native and Black peoples gave him information about where and how to find certain birds.Audubon shows his true colors in a short story titled “The Runaway” that appeared in Ornithological Biography, a companion piece to The Birds of America. In the story, Audubon recounts encountering an escaped enslaved family in a swamp. In the story, Audubon retells how after spending the night with the family, the next day he takes them back to their original master so that they can be enslaved once again. He then chooses to describe them as “happy” with their reenslavement. Whether true or fictional (many of these short stories were fictional), Audubon paints himself as both the savior of the family through the return to their master and a defender of slaveholder’s assumed rights to own humans as property. This glimpse into Audubon’s true character and treatment of people of color, especially considering the likelihood of this being a fictional “fantasy” for Audubon and many of his readers, shows us that he not only benefitted from his white passing privilege, but actively used it to reinforce white supremacist and dehumanizing beliefs and behaviors towards people of color.
By calling attention to the problematic pasts of heroes of the art and natural history worlds, such as Audubon, we are able to recontextualize, redefine, and reexamine our understandings and our relationships to these people. As a museum, it is our duty to contextualize the objects we showcase in order for our viewer to understand the whole picture, and by addressing Audubon’s past, we hope to be able to move forward towards more equitable and ethical museum practices by refusing to excuse his behavior or simply label him a “man of his time” as so many have done.