Australian Museum’s digital outdoor installation debuts at Newcastle Museum from 22 March 2023.

Storybox - Gould's Birds of Australia Bird Box
The Birds of Australia STORYBOX. Image: ESEM Projects
© ESEM Projects

22 March 2023, Sydney: The Australian Museum (AM) celebrates the legacy of naturalist and renowned British ornithologist of the nineteenth century, John Gould, his wife Elizabeth Gould, and his seminal book, Birds of Australia, in a new touring multi-media installation, Birds of Australia Storybox, opening at the Newcastle Museum on Wednesday 22 March 2023, before touring other public galleries and outdoor precincts throughout NSW.

The interactive storytelling cube, created by the AM with ESEM Projects, brings to life Australia’s unique and distinctive birds using the rich and timeless illustrations from the book combined with birdsong and First Nations storytelling and knowledge. Birds of Australia Storybox encourages audiences to contemplate the significance of Australia’s colourful bird history – the majority of the world’s birds can trace their ancestry to Australia, and why we need to conserve them for future generations.

Regarded as the finest collection of ornithological drawings ever created, the installation traces the journey of John Gould and his wife Elizabeth, as they travelled across New South Wales in the 1800s on one of the most significant birding expeditions in Australia’s history. On their journey, First Nations guides and knowledge played a vital role in their studies and exploration, and the installation explains why understanding Australian birdlife from First Nations perspective is essential to informing contemporary knowledge and conservation of Australian birds.

Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay AO said that the touring installation has been made possible through support from the NSW Government Blockbuster Funding Initiative.

“With the support of the NSW Government we have been able to partner with eight regional venues to present this dynamic installation. Kicking off in Newcastle, before travelling to coastal towns and to western NSW, Birds of Australia Storybox enables the AM to connect with audiences through the cultural importance of art and science in action,” McKay said.

“Australian birds are wonderfully cheeky, loud and intelligent. Next time you are outside, look up and marvel at the diversity and symphony of our birds, and ensure they are protected,” McKay added.

Australian Museum Head of Archives and Rare Books, Vanessa Finney, said John and Elizabeth Gould’s illustrations and their authoritative exploration of Australian birdlife is unparalleled.

“Gould was not only at the forefront of evolutionary theory, but with his family background in horticulture, he had a deep understanding of the natural world,” Finney said.

Touring Exhibition: The Birds of Australia birdscape.
Touring Exhibition: The Birds of Australia birdscape. Image: ESEM Projects
© Australian Museum

“However, it was his wife Elizabeth Gould’s artistry, talent and eye for detail which made these scientifically accurate illustrations so striking. Painted in tasteful compositions to showcase their beautiful plumage and natural surroundings, Elizabeth was considered one of the most accomplished illustrators and painters of her generation. Without Elizabeth’s artistic talents, John Gould’s early publications would likely have failed,” Finney explained.

Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said Newcastle was a natural fit for the launch of the Australian Museum's innovative new installation, which showcases the work of John and Elizabeth Gould.

"As the custodians of one of the country's largest collections of John Gould's Birds of Australia publications, which feature stunning original lithographs created by his wife Elizabeth, City of Newcastle has a long history promoting and conserving the legacy of the Goulds," Cr Nelmes said.

"These significant publications were donated to the city in 1945 by Dr Roland Pope and are a treasured part of the Newcastle Library collection.

"To see their work brought to life in a whole new way through this amazing multimedia installation by the Australian Museum is simply amazing and we are thrilled to help officially launch the Birds of Australia Storybox at the Newcastle Museum, which itself is know for being on the cutting edge of contemporary museum practice."

Australian Museum Chief Scientist, Professor Kris Helgen, said that John Gould is considered the father of ornithology, the scientific study of birds, in Australia, identifying hundreds of species new to science.

“Gould made fundamental contributions to science, both in Australia and globally. His work in identifying bird specimens collected by Darwin was crucial to the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, for example” Helgen said.

“We know now that Australia has been an important centre of bird evolution, with songbirds tracing their ancestry back to this continent. Australian birds are evolutionarily very special, and they are gorgeous too. We hope that this installation will bring awareness to the importance of our native birds and showcase the astonishing variety, colour and complexity of Australia’s amazing bird life,” Helgen added.

Australian Museum Producer, Touring Exhibitions, Louise Teteris, said that this project was born from the AM’s digitisation project to make the AM’s priceless collections available to a wider audience so that access is not restricted to those who can visit the museum.

“Museums and galleries have the capacity to enrich our lives and their collections lie at the heart of this aim. ESEM Projects Storybox has married art with science to connect audiences with the natural world and give the wider public a unique, one-of-a-kind experience to enjoy,” Teteris said.

Director of ESEM Projects, and the creative lead behind Birds of Australia Storybox installation, Dr Sarah Barns, said that today’s creative technologies allow for new conversations and experiences of museums’ rare and priceless collections.

“One of our key aims for this project was to bring the Gould collection– a national asset and treasure, into a very public space for all to enjoy. At the heart of the project, is a desire to communicate and tell a conservation story through art, song and word,” Barns said.

The Birds of Australia Storybox has been devised, developed and presented by the Australian Museum, in collaboration with ESEM Projects and regional cultural institutions. The multimedia installation will be travelling to public precincts across New South Wales, inviting communities to connect with stories, animations, and illustrations that reflect on the wonder and fragility of Australia's unique bird life.

To enhance the experience, the AM has developed a free mobile app where visitors can learn about current habitat pressures facing many of the birds featured in Gould’s collection and what can be done to help endangered birds in local areas. Visitors can use their mobile to interact with the visual story by scanning the QR code to unlock First Nations stories, bird calls and in-depth profiles, interactive colouring activities and more.

About John and Elizabeth Gould

John Gould (1804-1881), also known as “The Bird Man”, was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, the son of John Gould, a gardener, and his wife Elizabeth Clatworthy. Gould’s training was as a taxidermist rather than an artist, and in 1828 he was appointed animal preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London.

With the obsession of a collector, and an eye for artistic talent, John Gould succeeded in creating one of the most recognisable and long-lasting brand names in natural history. It is an irony that a man who never finished a picture is remembered as one of the most significant bird artists of the Victorian age. More skilled as an entrepreneur than as an artist, Gould relied on his group of dedicated artists, lithographers, and colourers, especially his wife, Eizabeth, to translate his preparatory sketches into finished illustrations.

Gould visited the Australian Museum in 1839 and maintained an ongoing relationship with the institution on his return to England. Its curators purchased the bulk of his publications for the Museum’s collection which are still held in the Australian Museum Research Library today. Further biographical information here.

Elizabeth Gould (1804 – 1841), a natural history artist, was born in Ramsgate, England, the daughter of Nicholas Coxen, and member of a family largely devoted to the army and the sea. Trained in the arts of drawing, languages and music, Gould became a governess with a family in London where she met John Gould. They married in 1829, aged 24, and had four children. In 1838, John Gould resolved to extend his ornithological studies by visiting Australia. This was a decision partly prompted by the fact that Elizabeth had two brothers in New South Wales.

Facing a severe wrench in agreeing to accompany her husband to Australia, Mrs Gould left her three youngest children with her mother and took the eldest, Henry, aged 7, on the journey, together with a nephew of 15, Henry Coxen, who later became a prosperous pastoralist in Queensland.

John Gould couldn’t have picked a wife more perfectly suited to his career ambitions. Elizabeth was patient, hard-working, loyal, obedient – and most importantly, brimming with artistic talent. This was a quality that John himself sorely lacked.

Further biographical information here.

About The Birds of Australia (1840-1848)

The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) was the first comprehensive survey of the birds of Australia, featuring a seven-volume collection of hand-coloured illustrations led by English ornithologist and publisher John Gould. Featuring descriptions of over 681 species, 328 of which were new to science, the Birds of Australia collection interwove art and science in equal measure to produce over 600 and-coloured plates of Australian birds, today regarded as among the finest examples of bird illustrations ever published. Led by John Gould, the illustrations feature works by a number of artists including Gould’s wife Elizabeth, Edward Lear, H.C. Richter, William Hart, and Joseph Wolf, created through a combination of drawing, watercolour and lithography.

Touring itinerary

  • 22 March to 12 June 2023 – Newcastle Museum Forecourt, Newcastle, NSW
  • 30 June to 27 August 2023 – Tamworth Library & Regional Gallery Forecourt, Tamworth, NSW
  • 1 September to 26 November – Orange Regional Museum & Gallery Forecourt, Orange, NSW
  • December 2023 to February 2024 – Batemans Bay, NSW
  • April to June 2024 – Albury Library Museum, Albury, NSW
  • July to September 2024 – Grafton, NSW
  • October to December 2024 – Port Macquarie, NSW
  • January to March 2025 – Blue Mountains, NSW

Editor’s note: Images found here Further touring exhibition information here

About the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. As custodian of more than 21.9 million objects and specimens, the AM is uniquely positioned to provide a greater understanding of the region through its scientific research, exhibitions and public and education programs. Through the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM also plays a leading role in conserving Australia’s biodiversity through understanding the environmental impacts of climate change, potential security threats and invasive species.

About ESEM Projects

ESEM Projects are a leading digital curation and storytelling practice who work with cultural institutions and communities to bring unique digital experiences into the public domain.

Working across technologies and mediums, Esem Projects lead multi-disciplinary teams to bring historical collections and stories to life, facilitating new creative conversations between past, present and future places and communities.

In 2020 Esem Projects launched STORYBOX, a 3D storytelling cube designed to facilitate shared digital storytelling programs in public precincts. Working with the Australian Museum to launch Birds of Australia as a travelling digital installation on STORYBOX, Directors Sarah Barns and Michael Killalea have explored the potentials of multi-sensory, interactive storytelling to revisit the iconic Birds of Australia illustrations by John Gould, reflecting on contemporary insights and challenges facing Australia's unique and fragile native bird life.

Media Contact

Claire Vince, Media and Communications Adviser

T 0468 726 910

E Claire.Vince@Australian.Museum