Hatcher exhibit space has a new name

February 19, 2023

The University of Michigan Library’s premier exhibit space has been renamed, and will no longer bear the name of the 19th-century artist, naturalist, and ornithologist John James Audubon. The space, which is in the Hatcher Library, is now the Hatcher Gallery Exhibit Room.

Interim Dean of Libraries Donna Hayward said the name change, which was driven by the library community, acknowledges known but long-overlooked facts about Audubon, an enslaver who spoke out against the abolitionist movement. Hayward said that Audubon’s actions during his life do not represent the values of the library or its community. 

“What we have learned, time and time again, is that we have to continuously re-evaluate what we know to ensure that all aspects of the organization are aligned with our values. While Audubon's contributions to science and art were significant, his actions and what he represented as a human do not merit the special recognition of a named space in our library,” Hayward said.

The room hosts library-curated exhibits, and has on permanent display a volume of the library's edition of Audubon’s famous book, "The Birds of America," open to show one of the life-size images (the page is turned regularly). The room was named in 2009 in recognition of the special place the book holds in the university's history, as it was the first book purchased for the library by the board of regents in 1838

"The Birds of America" remains on display with new labels, written by librarians and a history professor at U-M, that address the author’s complicated legacy and also acknowledge the many uncredited contributors, many of them Indigenous people and enslaved Black people, who worked alongside Audubon.   

“The labels provide deeper context and information about Audubon's 'The Birds of America,'" Hayward said. "We hope this more complete history of the book sheds light on suppressed aspects of American history, and on how knowledge is created, shared, presented, and preserved at institutions like the U-M Library.” 

The U-M Library is not the first institution to reconsider Audubon’s legacy. The Audubon Society, a non-profit whose mission is to protect birds and their habitats, has addressed the issues with its namesake. And at least one local chapter of the society has completely walked away from the Audubon name. 

Hayward describes the library's approach — renaming the space, and continuing to display the book with updated information — as a thoughtful reckoning with a thorny issue that's much bigger than the legacy of one man.

"Reexamining items in our collection in light of new information is fundamental to our work, and can play an important role in our effort to acknowledge the full breadth of the impact of racism on our past and present," Hayward said. "It's a necessary, if not sufficient, step toward creating a better future. This also comes at a time when the university launched the inclusive history project, which will document and better understand the university's history with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion"

Learn more about the library's work to remediate harmful language in metadata.


by Alan Piñon


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