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Concord Museum exhibit comes ‘Alive With Birds’

Concord Museum's "Alive With Birds" exhibit includes "Black-billed Cuckoo, 1828" by John James Audubon.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A chorus of bird calls greets visitors to the Concord Museum’s new exhibit “Alive With Birds,” where a collection of art and artifacts will bring them closer to an important piece of preservation history.

The exhibit, which opened to the public March 4, celebrates the life and legacy of William Brewster, one of the earliest advocates for protecting birds and their habitats.

Brewster, who lived from 1851 to 1919, devoted himself to the study of ornithology and bought a stretch of land in Concord he called “October Farm,” where he learned the importance of conserving nature.

In 2019, 143 acres of the former October Farm was given to Mass Audubon, a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife in Massachusetts and which Brewster led as its first president. It has been renamed Brewster’s Woods Wildlife Sanctuary.


Once the Concord Museum learned of the gift, plans began for an exhibit that would educate the public on the legacy of the land and its original caretaker.

“Through the Concord grapevine we knew that the property was being gifted to Mass Audubon, and it just came up that this is the perfect opportunity for a joint exhibition,” said Erica Lome, lead curator of “Alive With Birds.”

The Concord Museum collaborated with Mass Audubon on the special exhibition "Alive With Birds."Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

She said it was beneficial for the Concord Museum and Mass Audubon to collaborate on a shared part of their histories.

The exhibit showcases 20 paintings and sculptures from Mass Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art. The pieces span many different styles and time periods.

“All of this art was made with different purposes and artistic sensibilities, so they show birds in different ways, and I think that’s perfect for what we’re trying to do here in terms of introducing this incredible property to the public,” said Amy Montague, director of the Museum of American Bird Art.


Many of the artworks are accompanied by manuscript materials of Brewster’s journals from the Chesterwood Archives at Williams College and The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. The direct quotes from Brewster often describe the subjects of the artworks.

“Early on in the process that was a determination, let’s couple the images with Brewster’s own words,” said David Wood, curator of Concord Museum. “It just seems to work well; why not let Brewster write the labels for us?”

Another element of the exhibit is a 10-minute video experience of Brewster’s Woods titled “The Farm.”

The museum partnered with Richard Lewis Media Group to create a video element using some of Mass Audubon’s 2,000 glass plate negatives that Brewster captured of October Farm during his 30 years there.

“We wanted to bridge the gap between the past and the present of Brewster’s Woods,” said Lome. “It’s a great way for people to be introduced to that property and hopefully incentivize them to visit.”

The exhibit includes of a photograph of William Brewster at this cabin in Concord in 1892.Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

The photographs were match-framed with videos taken by filmographers on the property today. The resulting video display is shown on the far wall of the exhibit with an audio recording of bird calls on the property.

Beyond the artworks, placards throughout the exhibit explain how Brewster made October Farm one of the earliest examples of a field study for birds.

“It’s a celebration of the use he made of October Farm,” which consisted of parcels totaling 300 acres that Brewster purchased along the Concord River, Woods said. “He acquired those farms and stuck them together because you need a certain area in order to actually see the birds in their natural habitat.”


Early in his career of studying birds, Brewster would shoot them down in order to study their characteristics. By 1890 he had a “change in heart” after noticing the severe decline in birds he’d see on outings, and decided to reverse his approach.

“It’s epochal that Brewster said ‘I’m not going to shoot birds anymore,’ because that was the way you did it, that you haven’t made an observation until you’ve killed the specimen,” said Wood.

Beyond Brewster’s work in conservation, the exhibit explores different chapters of his life that the curators hope will inspire visitors.

The exhibit explores the contributions of Robert Gilbert, a Black ornithologist who served as Brewster’s field assistant and companion for more than two decades.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The exhibit also explores the contributions of Robert Gilbert, a Black ornithologist who served as Brewster’s field assistant and companion for more than two decades, and Brewster’s lifelong friendship with the sculptor Daniel Chester French.

“I think it speaks to different levels of interest that the visitor might have,” said Lome. “They might come purely to see beautiful works of art, but hopefully they’ll take away a lot of this interesting scientific history.”

“Alive With Birds” will remain open until Sept. 5, and visitors are welcome to an array of programming found at concordmuseum.org. Brewster’s Woods has trails open to the public from dawn till dusk.

The relationship between the exhibit and the land is important, according to Montague, and it’s hoped a visit to either will leave the guest with a new appreciation for birds and conservation.


“I hope people are going to look at the art that has inspired people for almost 200 years and that will bring people closer to the land that we’re celebrating and inspire them to preserve it,” Montague said.

"Alive With Birds" has over 20 works of art along with a media presentation that includes Brewster photographs overlayed with current images of October Farm in Concord.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Grace Gilson can be reached at grace.gilson@globe.com.