Student-curated Fine Arts Center exhibit on John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” Takes Wing

CC students are engaged with Professor Rebecca Tucker in the Museum Practicum course to learn about their individual roles in the process – from exhibition planning, selecting works from the permanent collection (this one focuses on John James Audubon), installation, content development, etc. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III
CC students are engaged with Professor Rebecca Tucker in the Museum Practicum course to learn about their individual roles in the process – from exhibition planning, selecting works from the permanent collection (this one focuses on John James Audubon), installation, content development, etc. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III

For the students of Professor Rebecca Tucker’s Museum Studies Practicum, the museum isn’t just a place to dispense information. It’s a vehicle, a laboratory, a playground, a classroom, and a public arena, humming with the possibility of blowing open old practices. This spring, as the students curate an exhibition of 24 prints from John James Audubon’s “Birds in America,” they aim to upend the museum experience, turning it into a site for equal exchange between curators and visitors.

Their exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s Museum, “Reframing Birds of America: Conversations on Audubon,” represents nearly a year’s work. For two semesters, students have honed the themes and ideas of the exhibit. The design considerations — from the lighting and picture frames to the text accompanying the prints — are critical. But nothing is more important than the questions they will invite of viewers.

“So many of our students want to make change,” says Tucker, professor of art and the project lead. “The agenda of the museum and art history these days is to ask hard questions, and the museum is the arena for the questions they want to be asking.”

Those questions center around the man credited with creating the exhibit’s prints, John James Audubon — a now-legendary 19th century wildlife painter who set himself an epic quest: to document every bird on the American continent.

Audubon’s work was revolutionary. Published from 1827–1838, the hundreds of hand-colored prints he produced and bound in massive leather tomes electrified viewers, allowing them to gaze at lifelike birds in their natural settings for the first time. Audubon eventually amassed a fortune, and long after his death, he inspired bird conservation societies worldwide that still carry his name. Yet today, these same societies are distancing themselves from their namesake. Audubon was an enslaver, a critic of emancipation, and a taxidermist who shot, killed, and artificially posed his subjects with wires. He wasn’t directly involved in the production of the prints that made him famous, and never touched the prints that will make up the FAC’s spring exhibition.

To the Museum Studies Practicum students, he represents a man who used power and privilege to dominate scientific and artistic discourse and center himself in the conversation. As they showcase his prints, they aim to de-center the man who produced them, asking viewers to question who deserves the credit for “Birds of America” — and who held the power during its creation.

At the same time, they hope to transform the power structures of the exhibit itself.

“Museums are institutions that are deeply rooted in problematic practices,” says Jeremy Cashion ’24, a student in the course. “In many ways I would say that museums are at the forefront of colonial practice, even today. They operate with a hierarchical power structure where curators take their knowledge and expect museum visitors to just absorb it. I think we need to bring new modes of thinking entirely into these spaces — and in this class, we have the opportunity to decolonize some of these spaces and ideas.”

Adrianna Gautreaux ’23, a fellow curator, agrees.

“I think that’s why so many of us are here: the ability to have a voice and change the narrative about something that is so ingrained in culture and in colonial museum structures,” Gautreaux says. “Being granted the space, tools, and time for this project is probably the most important opportunity I’ve had in my student career.”

For a year, after class has finished for the day, the curators have gathered to hammer out the details of the exhibit. Often, they stand around a foam model of the exhibit space to discuss how to group the prints, where to place lighting, which walls to paint, and where to draw visitors in with interactive elements.

Just like the beat of a bird’s wings through the air, every decision they make creates a consequence. The light they use in the exhibit could degrade the prints. The text accompanying each piece will be printed on vinyl — necessary to impart information, but wasteful, and impossible to re-use. During one class session, the excited hum of the students’ conversation stutters as they discuss the process of physically framing and displaying the art. Some students want to tilt the prints’ frames to literally approach Audubon’s art from a different angle. Others contend it could alienate the very visitors they hope to engage in conversation.

These tensions are what make the course’s project-based pedagogy so powerful, says Tucker.

“They’ve been presented with a problem: to figure out how to display historical objects in a contemporary context,” she says. “They have to grapple with the works of art, with the museum, with the curation process, with the consequences of their decisions. And their work is framed by the fact that this is part of the Fine Art Center’s exhibition schedule. Their exhibit will be out there in the world.”

“These students want to know how their learning matters,” Tucker continues. “Whenever we can activate relevancy, we can amplify their excitement.”

Indeed, rather than seeming deflated by the challenges they face, the students are energized by the debate. Their conversation bubbles into a surge of solutions. They’ll cut down on vinyl use by publishing a mobile guide. They’ll create a response wall to invite visitors to deeply engage with the works, then become part of the conversation. And in a masterstroke, they decide to hang an empty frame at the front of the exhibit — removing Audubon from the narrative, but highlighting his absence.

As they file downstairs to learn how to frame prints, Tucker muses, “This is a chance for the students to see why their learning matters in a public way. Why does it matter that they study colonial art history? Because it empowers them to provide new perspectives. They see why their liberal arts education isn’t a retreat from the world. It’s a launching pad,” she says — for students, and for an exhibition, ready to take flight.


“Reframing Birds of America: Conversations on Audubon” opens to the public at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College on Apr. 8, 2022. The exhibit will be on view from Apr. 8–July 30, 2022. Learn more on the Fine Arts Center website.

Report an issue - Last updated: 04/21/2022