The tall flamingo, one of hundreds of species rendered in brilliant life-size detail in John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” presented dimensional challenges to its inclusion in the project. Despite the six-foot-wide span of the ambitious 19th-century volume on display at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, the bird cranes its neck down the page with obliging grace for natural history’s sake.
Audubon’s masterwork, produced between 1828 and 1838, anchors a vast Mercantile exhibition opening this fall at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Fortunate enough to have acquired the sprawling “Birds of America” when Audubon was alive and the oldest library west of the Mississippi was still very young, the Mercantile Library presents “Audubon and Beyond: Collecting Five Centuries of Natural History at the St. Louis Mercantile Library.”
The second in a tetralogy of major exhibitions leading up to the 175th anniversary of the library in 2021, “Audubon and Beyond” showcases one of the library’s largest and most significant collections. John Hoover, director of the Mercantile, notes that the renowned naturalist’s output in printed plates and paintings is “so large and so inspirational” his artistic legacy perhaps overshadows the larger context of his contributions.
“The intention of this exhibition is to tell the story of the rise, sweep and continued interest in science and natural history in an early library like the Mercantile, founded in frontier times,” Hoover says. “Now serving a wide array of scholars in disciplines ranging from engineering and architecture to art and museum studies, the breadth and depth of collections like this one continue to offer fruitful inquiry to UMSL students, faculty and visitors.”
With sections devoted to birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, bugs, plants, humans, astronomy, geology, meteorology and more, the exhibition showcases not just the library’s sizable Audubon holdings but several full centuries of science, lore and art. Its physical reach extends throughout many areas of the library, with a wide variety of both two- and three-dimensional materials on display.
“The exhibition is planned for all ages, and many special related events will be offered to the library’s growing membership and the campus community,” says Julie Dunn-Morton, Mercantile Library Endowed Curator of Fine Art Collections. “It is an exhibition of rare books and fine art that transports the visitor to an early natural history museum of the 1840s, reflecting both our founding era and our tremendous collections growth since that time.”
Exhibition hours run 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 12 to 8 p.m. Sunday (opens to public Nov. 9). The St. Louis Mercantile Library is located on Level 1 of the Thomas Jefferson Library building on UMSL’s north campus.
For more information on hours and upcoming events related to the exhibition, see umsl.edu/mercantile.