Tuesday Tweet: The Gift of Audubon

In the Annals of the Museum of Natural History 1872-1939, Thomas Sadler Roberts, museum director, listed the following entry for January 20, 1928 on a detailed timeline of museum activities and milestones:

An original double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America – four volumes-donated to the museum by the heirs of Mr. W. O. Winston.

First published as a series in 1827, The Birds of America is comprised of hand colored prints, made from engraved plates, of the bird illustrations of John James Audubon. Measuring 39×26 inches in size, the prints were issued in sets over the course of several years. In total, 435 plates were produced. The Bell’s edition of The Birds of America is one of only approximately 120 known to exist today.

Curious as to how the Museum of Natural History came to acquire this rare book in 1928? The University Archives may be able to help…

At the University of Minnesota, donations of significant note required official acceptance by the University’s governing body, the Board of Regents. Record of the Board’s vote to accept the gift “with thanks” is found in the February 11, 1928 Meeting Minutes.

Customarily, such a gift would also be recognized by the President of the University. The Office of the President Records contain multiple letters between Thomas Sadler Roberts, President Lotus Coffman, and the heirs of Mr. W.O. Winston that further elaborate the circumstances of the gift.

Francisca S. Winston, Charles S. Whitaker, Donald Winston, William O. Winston, Jr. and Frederick S. Winston to the Zoological Museum, University of Minnesota, January 20, 1928:


Dear Sirs:

Because of the special interest of William Overton Winston in the Zoological Museum of the University of Minnesota, as well as because of his life-long friendship for its Director, Dr. Thomas S. Roberts, and as a token of his love for birds, we, the family of Mr. Winston, in his memory, present to the Zoological Museum of the University of Minnesota, this set of the Double Elephant Folio Edition of the works of John James Audubon, with the request that it be retained in the museum as a special exhibit.

Thomas S Roberts, Director Natural History Museum to Dr. Lotus D. Coffman, President of the University of Minnesota, January 28, 1928:


My dear Dr. Coffman

The Natural History Museum received on January 26, from Mrs. W.O. Winston and family of this city, a set of the John James Audubon four volume double elephant folio edition of the Birds of America. This is a rare and valuable work and is an important gift to the University. Its money value ranges between three and four thousand dollars. This particular copy came from England during the war and was purchased some years ago by the late W.O. Winston and in accordance with his wish, often expressed to the writer, has been donated to the Museum by his heirs. I include the letter which accompanied the gift. You will note that it is the wish of the donors, as it was the wish of Mr. Winston, that the books shall remain in the Museum as a special exhibit. We are making plans so they can be shown without danger or injury to special groups of visitors. I hope Mr. Walter will not feel aggrieved at this arrangement. As the property of the Museum the books are of course also the property of the University – simply deposited here indefinitely for special reasons.

Roberts included Mrs. Winston’s address in the post script for Coffman’s reference when sending his own letter of his thanks, which he did on February 15, 1928. As it turned out, Mr. Walter, the University Librarian, was not aggrieved at the arrangement for the book to be displayed at the museum as opposed to it becoming part of the library collection, and sent his acknowledgement to Roberts in a letter dated March 16, 1928, “Permit me to congratulate you on having this magnificent set in your collection. I do not think there is any doubt that, for the present at least, it is really a museum piece rather than a manual which should be used for ordinary library purposes.

The Bell Museum of Natural History’s edition of The Birds of America is the inspiration for the museum’s upcoming exhibition: Audubon and the Art of Birds. A special exhibit of original prints from the Bell’s restored edition of The Birds of America will be displayed along with ornithological art from other prominent artists. Audubon and the Art of Birds opens at the Bell Museum of Natural History on October 5.