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December 16, 2011

Audubon's "Birds of America" — in slow motion

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How slow?

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It'll take you 87 weeks to get through the masterwork (435 plates) in its entirety.

Long story short from the Washington Post:

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One of the world's rarest and most valuable books is on public view as part of an unusual daily ritual at the nation's oldest natural history museum.

Every weekday at 3:15 p.m., a white-gloved staff member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia lifts the locked protective cover from the museum's copy of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" and — using two hands — turns a 26-by-38-inch linen-backed page to reveal the bird of the day [top photo]. More than 180 years after Audubon created the life-size illustrations, their vibrant colors and fine details are still remarkable.

"Many times these were framed as artworks and faded from exposure to light," said curator Robert Peck [second photo from top], who does many of the page turnings. "Ours weren't exposed to light, so they're in wonderful condition."

Audubon traveled for decades to observe birds in their habitats and to hunt samples he used as models for his masterwork, which allowed people to see exotic species in incredible detail and full color before the invention of photography.

The prints were sold in installments. Subscribers received a set of five prints — usually one large show-stopper of a bird, such as the hot-pink roseate spoonbill, above, along with four prints of smaller species. The Philadelphia museum's copy spent years in a vault, available only to scholars by appointment. But this summer officials decided to bring their treasure out of hiding.

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From Wikipedia: "Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, an original subscriber to 'Birds of America,' has a daily 'page turning' event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library. The Academy's website also includes a digital version of the event."

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The Academy could embrace a whole new worldwide audience by focusing a live webcam on the open book with a countdown timer marking how long till the next page turning.

I wonder if anyone in Philadelphia makes it a part of her or his daily routine to visit the Academy around 3 p.m. every weekday to watch the ritual.

You could do worse with your time.

A nice way to mark the passage of 87 weeks, don't you think?

December 16, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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