In the early 1800s, naturalist John James Audubon set a monumental goal to paint every bird in North America. His 435 life-size watercolor prints, collected in the book The Birds of America, are now considered the archetype of wildlife illustration, and the St. Louis Mercantile Library owns a rare first-edition of the seminal work. “It was very ambitious for a self-trained artist to do such a thing, but he did it resoundingly,” says library executive director John Hoover. “It’s a magnificent masterpiece.” There are about 70 sets of Audubon’s original prints in libraries, Hoover says, and the Mercantile’s is one of very few in the Midwest.

Given its rarity, the collection is frequently loaned to other institutions. When many of the prints were returned recently, Hoover decided to use them as a springboard to create a more expansive exhibition on natural history. Audubon and Beyond: Collecting Five Centuries of Natural History at the St. Louis Mercantile Library opens to the public Nov. 9. Admission is free. “This exhibition is about how one great work became so emblematic and inspired many other collections about science,” Hoover says. “The more I dug, the more I became fascinated by the way this library wanted to educate the citizenry.”

OBC-umsl-no-boxAs the name suggests, the exhibition includes much more than the rare Audubon images. It examines five centuries of natural-history artifacts, such as botanical works from the Renaissance through the modern era with artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The 15-part exhibition covers 5,000 square feet and includes about 100 framed prints and paintings and 150 rare books. An interactive website and on-site kiosks help bring the collection to life. “At any given time, you can see only one beautiful image when a book is kept under lock and key,” Hoover says. “This allows visitors to turn the pages in a virtual way so they can go more in depth with the displays.”

The comprehensive collection includes items that have never been publicly displayed at the Mercantile, including Andre Michaux’s The Silva of North America, and Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian. “Even longtime members of the Library will see things they had no idea we owned and that probably won’t be displayed again for another 100 years,” Hoover says. “I’ve been here 30 years, and I was blown away by this exhibition. It’s been a thrill to put it up.”

Audubon and Beyond is the second in a series of four exhibits showcasing the Mercantile’s broad collection as part of the library’s 175th anniversary celebration, which culminates in 2021. Located at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Mercantile Library is the oldest general library west of the Mississippi River. It was founded in 1846 by civic leaders and philanthropists, and became affiliated with UMSL in 1998. “We are the grandparent of all the cultural institutions in St. Louis,” Hoover says. “There’s something here for everybody, from 10 to 100 years old.”

Photo courtesy of the Collection of St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL

[There will be a members preview of Audubon and Beyond: Collecting Five Centuries of Natural History at the St. Louis Mercantile Library Nov. 6, and the exhibition opens to the public Nov. 9 at St. Louis Mercantile Library, located on the campus of University of Missouri-St. Louis in the Thomas Jefferson Library Building. The exhibition is free. For more information, call 314. 516.7248 or visit]