Audubon exhibit at Baylor’s Martin Museum kicks off a season of change

By Katherine McClellan

Fall is a season of exterior changes, such as cooling weather and falling leaves. At the same time, you may notice some interior changes this season as you step inside Baylor University’s Martin Museum of Art.

The Martin Museum is greeting its visitors with a newly renovated space and an exciting exhibit featuring American painter John James Audubon. The museum proudly owns four of Audubon’s original prints from his first publication, and is highlighting these works through the three-part exhibition “Life, Work & Legacy,” which runs through Nov. 11.

Martin director Allison Chew has been hard at work preparing the museum for this season of change.

“The renovation happened because it was time for it to happen. It also allows us to host future exhibitions better,” Chew said. “One specific thing we’ve done with the current renovation is an update to our lighting system, helping us meet national standards.”

In addition, Chew said a fad that swept the nation 30 years ago, resulting in the walls of museum spaces being carpeted, has made its departure. Stark white walls have replaced the carpet and are now highlighted by a new LED lighting system that does well to accent the featured artwork.

A surprising discovery

Chew has a history with the works of John James Audubon. She had just started working at the Martin Museum when a professor in Baylor’s art department requested the Martin’s four Audubon prints for a class.

“It was the first time they had ever been requested, and the first time I had ever laid eyes on them,” Chew said. Her staff began to conduct some preliminary research on the prints to provide some basic information to the professor and his class. “I pulled a particular plate, ‘The Great American Hen,’ and it didn’t look right. I thought it was a forgery.”

After extensive research, the plate was discovered to be one of the rarest plates from its publication.

“It’s early on in the edition and made by the first engraver William Lizars, who was fired,” Chew said. She explained that the engraver hired after Lizars changed Audubon’s original plate slightly, thereby changing the overall image.

“There are only about 20 of the Lizars prints in existence,” Chew said, “so the one Baylor owns is really rare.”

All of this research led to Chew’s love of Audubon — not only his works, but his character as well.

“He was very eccentric, a real character,” she said. “He elevated his life to that of celebrity.” Chew’s love for Audubon grew until the Martin staff felt they needed to show off their collection and give the Waco a glance into his life.

The exhibit at the Martin Museum focuses on John James Audubon’s most significant work, the “Birds of America” series.

“The museum is fortunate enough to have four of the original engravings from the original printing,” Chew said. “We used that collection from our permanent holdings to put together an exhibition showcasing the journey Audubon took to create that publication.”

Life, work and legacy

“We’ve separated the Audubon exhibit into three separate categories — life, work and legacy,” Chew said. “We look through the lens of his letters home to his family and his journals to contextualize his life and what was going on in the world at that time. Our second section outlines the technical processes of creating engravings and methods used to create these series. Lastly, we showcase Audubon’s legacy — how it impacted conservation of bird species, the following art pieces he made because of the success of Birds of America, kind of scientific data based on what we’ve learned from his publication and how things have changed over time.”

Several parts of the exhibit immerse patrons in Audubon’s time.

“We recreated some of the 19th century spaces, like the parlor room, because this was a subscription-based publication. People would have subscribed to it and received the installments periodically,” Chew said. “We even have a reproduction of the subscription box, where the patron can walk through the parlor room and open up the box, imagining the excitement 19th century subscribers must have felt. We recreated a printmaking studio so patrons can observe the process. And we also created a theoretical studio space so people can see how Audubon worked. He used some pretty unique methods to create the publication.”

The “John James Audubon: Life, Work & Legacy” exhibit is free, and will be on display through Sunday, Nov. 11. The Martin Museum of Art is located in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Building on the Baylor University campus. For more information, visit or call (254) 710-6371.

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