A young English naturalist named Ernest William White, sojourning in Argentina in the late 1870s, described being in a wealthy doctor’s house and witnessing “a literary sacrilege.” “The floor of the drawing room,” he said, “was strewn with the wreck of Gould’s magnificent work on the Toucans; and I trembled lest that the Trochilidae, which was at hand in a bookcase, should share the same fate: these splendid tomes . . . leaving their natural use, had degenerated into nursery playthings” (White 1881, vol. 1, 394). To a bibliophile this is an appalling story, but truth be told, those heedless children may have derived more pleasure from Gould’s “splendid tomes” than anyone before or since. Bird books – especially the famous ones – are generally treated as monuments, looked at a page at a time, a few pages only, hands in white gloves, with due admiration. Superlatives are used and exhausted, but the viewer is often left wondering just what the fuss is all about: The books are lovely and expensive, but do they still have anything to say? Wouldn’t a field guide do as well?
This exhibition and catalogue attempt to do, in a way, what the doctor’s children did: cut out pictures from famous books. Verbal as well as visual pictures, pasting them together into a narrative that tells a story of exploration and adventure, discovery and science. It will be seen that there are, in fact, connections between the famous illustrated books of previous centuries and today’s field guides, and that we can discern those connections by learning something about the life and times of the people who produced the books of each era. The old books do have something to say – if we pay to them a different kind of attention. Because this is an exhibit of books, there is an inevitable bias toward people who could write and who published accounts of their travels in the Neotropics.
There are a number of people whom I suspect were quite interesting, and who certainly did work as significant as some of the people written up in this catalogue, but for whatever reason they were silent about their experiences. So as a survey, Aves is representative, not comprehensive. Also, many early travelers in the Neotropics were polymaths, and most of those who were accomplished in other fields still collected and investigated birds as part of their mission. It is a somewhat arbitrary matter to include one and exclude another. In the modern era, there are simply too many significant people to include them all, and the omissions are, alas, as arbitrary as the selections for the earlier period. The accounts presented here of individuals, and of their times, draw heavily on published secondary sources, which are credited in the text. Furthermore, I am an avocational birder, not an ornithologist, so my assessments of scientific importance rest largely on the judgment of others. With these caveats, the contribution I hope this catalogue makes is to bring together in one place a wealth of material, from many sources, to create for the first time a history of the discovery and description of Neotropical birds, and to present it in a manner that is informal and anecdotal, allowing those who discovered the birds to share the spotlight.
Author of AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology