How the Bell Museum revived its original set of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’

Bell Museum curator of exhibits Don Luce
MinnPost photo by Shaymus McLaughlin
Bell Museum curator of exhibits Don Luce wanted to ensure these rare works would be available to show for decades to come.

This was not a conservation project on which Don Luce wanted to take any risks.

“We weren’t testing anything unusual,” explained Luce, curator of exhibits at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. “We weren’t pushing the envelope.”

That may not sound too exciting, but consider the artifact at stake: a complete, original set of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” one of the most treasured, and expensive, books in existence.

At more than 180 years old, the Bell Museum’s set had a few issues. There were tears or stains on some pages. Fingerprint grime could be seen up and down the large sheets. The vivid species illustrations, done mainly in watercolor, were susceptible to light damage.

Luce wanted to ensure these rare works would be available to show for decades to come. So he spearheaded an effort to repair, clean up, and store the massive set.

‘It’s a shame that nobody can actually see this’

The Bell Museum’s “Birds of America” set wasn’t unique in its condition. “I think all of them have had issues,” said Andrée Miller, curator for the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove. “They’re old.”

Printed from about 1827 to 1838, the groundbreaking collection features 435 watercolor illustrations depicting North America’s birds, done on the largest paper available at the time. Known as double-elephant paper, it comes in just under 40 inches by 27 inches and allowed Audubon to paint each species its actual size.

Ouzel print before restoration, left, and after.
Midwest Art Conservation Center, courtesy of the Bell Museum
Ouzel print before restoration, left, and after.
Experts estimate 175-200 complete “Birds of America” sets were created, printed using hand-engraved plates then colored in by illustrators, Miller said. There are probably about 120 complete sets still in existence, she continued, with most in museums, libraries or public institutions.

For many years, the bound “Birds of America” books were often flipped through like, well, books. That led to strain from opening the large volumes, Miller said, and made them susceptible to rips and stains, or oils from fingers sticking to the paper.

The University of Minnesota received its copy as a gift in 1928. In 1955, the set was put in the university’s rare books vault. That’s where it stayed until the early 1980s, when a fresh-faced Luce learned of its existence. He went to the library where it was kept and pored over the four 50-pound volumes, finding many of the issues Miller described.

The bindings were particularly rough, Luce said — the red-dyed leather was disintegrating, leaving flecks on the prints. They were in no shape to be easily exhibited without risking further damage.

“I just said, you know, it’s a shame that nobody can actually see this,” Luce explained.

He made the decision then to unbind them and treat “Birds of America” as a folio of prints rather than as books. It was controversial at the time, he said, but allowed the museum to periodically display some of them.

But simply handling them was risky. One even suffered a minor tear while being brushed. As the years went by, Luce searched for a better, permanent solution.

Tried and true

Conservators are, unsurprisingly, conservative. “If there isn’t a good sense that this will work, then we don’t do anything,” said Elizabeth Buschor, now retired, who spent nearly three decades at the Midwest Art Conservation Center as a senior paper conservator. “You don’t want to make a mistake on anything because once you make a mistake, you can never take it back.”

When Luce landed grant money from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2013 (with some private funds boosting the pot), it was Buschor that shouldered most of the conservation work. Her cautious approach was fine with Luce, who wanted to do “the least amount to preserve the work.”

They decided not to use any bleach or chemicals to remove stains, for example. And some discoloration, which Luce believes was caused by the pages being pressed together for so long, was left untouched — he couldn’t find a safe method to clean it.

A close-up of a Purple Martin print with discoloration.
MinnPost photo by Shaymus McLaughlin
A close-up of a Purple Martin print with discoloration.
Buschor went to work in March of 2014. She would get the prints in batches of 50 and methodically go through them over several months. It was a “straightforward” treatment, she said, using tried and true materials that are reversible in the future.

She snapped sample photographs of each set, then used a special eraser to remove fingerprints and other residue. The tears and paper loss were repaired with strong, lightweight Japanese papers, Buschor explained, which she adhered to the back like a Band-Aid with wheat starch paste.

She humidified and flattened the prints as well, and a few got very minor color touch-ups in spots that had been scratched.

“Very little bad had happened to the prints or subsequently been done to them, which was a really wonderful thing,” she said.

What probably helped, according to Miller, is the high quality of the paper Audubon used, which was made with cotton and was not very acidic. Buschor described it as predictable and easier to work with.

Buschor finished her work in the summer of 2018, and the museum announced the full completion of the project this spring. It included a full digitizing of each page, viewable here.

But it wasn’t simply about making them look good, both Luce and Buschor said. Preservation solutions were key.

The works are all hinged in rag, acid-free mat board, allowing them to now be handled without ever touching the actual paper, Luce said. They’re stored in four custom-built protective cabinets, located in a back room.

When prints are on display, the glass used in the frames filters out UV light to minimize potential damage to the sensitive water colors. They’re also hung in a dimly lit area with LED bulbs.

Four will be shown at the Bell Museum through May: the Louisiana Water Thrush, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Purple Martin and Pigeon Hawk (now called a Merlin). After that, Luce plans to display one at a time, rotating through the prints that haven’t been shown before.

Barring a natural disaster, Luce believes they’re as future proof as they can get.

“They should be set,” he said.

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