A vivid mix of science, art and history

An exhibition visitor takes in a display of birds on loan from the Field Museum, commonly found in Kansas City, from a Barred Owl to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

“Chained to the Sky” exhibit at Linda Hall Library explores the longstanding relationship between humans and birds

Seemingly of two worlds — the earth and the sky — birds possess a mystery and majesty that have enthralled humans throughout history. They are creatures of the vast realm that exists when we turn our gaze upward while we are bound to the earth beneath our feet. Exploring the longstanding relationship between humans and our feathered counterparts, Linda Hall Library is exhibiting “Chained to the Sky: The Science of Birds, Past & Future.”

The titular phrase is pulled from the Bob Dylan quote, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.” The exhibition explores this concept by using Linda Hall Library’s massive collection of rare books, as well as bird specimens on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago. Throughout “Chained to the Sky,” both the illustrations within the rare books and the bird specimens reveal the vibrance and aesthetic appeal of the winged creatures.

The ornate, marbled exterior of the library greets visitors with massive “Chained to the Sky” posters framing the entryway. The library itself is a mid-century masterpiece, filled with wood, sharp angles, neutral tones and floor-to-ceiling windows. Galleries on either side of the library entrance immediately sweep visitors into “Chained to the Sky.”

“Lophophorus Impeyanus” by Elizabeth Gould depicts a type of Himalayan pheasant. The image is one of 80 lithographs she produced for the publication “A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains” written by her English ornithologist husband, John Gould. (John Gould, “A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains,” London, 1832)

The West Gallery details humankind’s past relationship with birds beginning with ancient beliefs and ending with the Victorian era. Sustainably created panels line the walls filled with illustrations and key ideas. The center of the room is arranged with glass cases containing bird specimens and rare books. These specimens have been meticulously collected and arranged in the method of study skins in which the body and skeleton are removed, leaving the skin, feathers, beak and legs. The study skins are then filled with cotton, sewn shut and positioned with wings folded and beak extended. Though these skins were originally collected to gather information on birds, they also show in lifelike detail the incredible beauty of these creatures, some of which have become extinct.

The Alcove Gallery homes in on the legacies of Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. Both men were immensely curious and meticulous in the way they studied the world around them, resulting in ornithological and scientific advancements from their work. Though both made detailed illustrations of their journeys, Audubon’s “The Birds of America” spanned 39 x 29 inches, allowing him to paint life-size images of America’s bird population. These images are vibrant and lifelike, and, at times, painful reminders of the threat human interaction can pose to the natural world.

John James Audubon’s classic drawing of two males and a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In addition to habitat loss, Audubon wrote that it was common for people to kill the bird as a collector’s item, observing that people paid “a quarter of a dollar for two or three heads of this woodpecker. (From the label.) (John James Audubon, “The Birds of America,” vol. 4, New York and Philadelphia, 1842)

The topic of extinction is unavoidable in “Chained to the Sky,” as it is an unfortunate effect of human fascination with and subsequent exploitation of birds. The exhibit explores our adoration of the creatures as well as the destruction of habitats, including the collection of specimens for science and sport, and feathers for fashion.

One notable feature is the Carolina Parakeet, found in Audubon’s work and as a specimen. This colorful parrot was once common in North America, with flocks numbering up to 300 birds. However, rampant killing for fashion and study decimated the species. Audubon’s “The Birds of America” has a famous illustration showing the vivid yellows and greens of the bird, which, according to a wall panel, “serves as a reminder that once a species is extinct, it’s gone forever.”

Vice President for Public Programs Eric Ward explained the weight of these harmful actions in his December talk, “Citizen Science and the Christmas Bird Count.” He detailed a bird-collecting expedition in which the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” was printed under the corpse of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was nearing extinction then and is suspected to be extinct today.

In the East Gallery, “Chained to the Sky” concludes with the future, outlining the ways humans can prevent further damage to our avian friends. Some of these include awareness about the danger windows pose to birds, pollinator gardens, water feeders and habitat structures.“Those who study birds actively warn about the dire state of North American birds,” said Dr. Eric Dorfman, president of Linda Hall Library. “Bird populations on our continent have declined by more than 3 billion in the last 50 years, causing dramatic changes in our natural animal and plant ecosystems.

Mark Catesby’s watercolor of a passenger pigeon standing on a leaf of a turkey oak. Catesby noted that flocks of pigeons were so numerous that “they often break down the limbs of oaks with their weight.” (From the label.) (Mark Catesby, “The Natural History of Carolina,
Florida, and the Bahama Islands,” vol. 1, London, 1754.)

“‘Chained to the Sky’ celebrates groundbreaking ornithology throughout history and shows how we can make a difference in our own backyards and neighborhoods,” he added. “The exhibition aims to inspire visitors to learn from the past, raise concern for our dwindling bird populations and promote further study and conservation.

“Chained to the Sky” provides a rare mix of science, art and history. The presence of bird specimens, especially those that are tragically extinct, highlights the impact of human action. The rare book displays show the evolution of humans’ long-running relationship with these flighted creatures.

Visitors also get to experience Linda Hall Library, which is one of the most extensive science libraries in the world. What is visible to the public is only a fraction of the collection’s true size. While some information in their books may no longer be accurate because of scientific advances, this allows the library to be both scientific and historical. It is a window into what people used to think, their shifts and progressions, and what they think now.

“Chained to the Sky: The Science of Birds, Past & Future” continues through July 13 at Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every second Saturday of the month. For more information, www.lindahall.org.

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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