When they were published from 1840 to 1848, the large-format, limited edition volumes of John Gould’s The Birds of Australia were the most comprehensive and detailed survey of Australia’s unique birdlife for eager European audiences.

Published in London in eight volumes, they contain over 680 plates and lyrical descriptions of Gould’s collecting experiences from his two-year Australian expedition with his wife Elizabeth in 1838. Each plate was one drawn by his team of artists, lithographed and then individually coloured in brilliant colour by Gould’s skilled colourists. Only 250 copies were printed.

Gould's Birds of Australia Reproductions
Vanessa Finney, Head of World Cultures, Archives and Library at the Australian Museum, peruses a reproduction of Gould's The Birds of Australia produced to mark the launch of The Birds of Australia touring installation. Image: James Alcock © Australian Museum

Few copies made it to Australia, but the Australian Museum (AM) was able to purchase its rare copies through the personal friendship between John Gould and ex-curator George Bennet. They are one of the treasures of the Australian Museum’s Rare Books Collections.

To mark the 175th anniversary of the publications, the AM digitised Gould’s The Birds of Australia volumes and published them online.

Australian Museum and STORYBOX

Having undertaken a major program to digitise the eight volumes of The Birds of Australia collection, the AM has enabled contemporary audiences to freely connect with and experience the work digitally. The digitisation program has also provided an opportunity to facilitate new creative and community engagement with Gould's publications.

A 12-minute audio-visual animation of The Birds of Australia was commissioned for presentation on a digital STORYBOX, to tour regional communities across NSW during 2023-2025.

Produced by ESEM Projects on STORYBOX.

  • Project Lead: Dr. Sarah Barns
  • Creative Director: Michael Killalea
  • Technical Direction: Leif Wilson
  • Design Director: Anna Fraser
  • Animation: Julian Burgess
  • Music Composition: Freya Berkhout
  • Creative Technologist & Software: Rene Christen (Socketumi)
  • Production Assistance: Sarie O'Brien
  • Videography: Brendan Blacklock (Blacklock Media)

The Birds of Australia STORYBOX is proudly supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW Blockbusters Funding initiative.

The Birds of Australia STORYBOX
The Birds of Australia STORYBOX. Image: ESEM Projects © ESEM Projects

First Nations knowledge

The digitisation program has also sparked a series of new conversations with First Nations Elders and knowledge holders, making space for important conversations about enduring First Nations knowledge and connection to Australia’s birds, and what all Australians can learn about our role as custodians and carers of Australia’s unique and increasingly fragile bird life.

Since the European colonisation of Australia, 21 species of birds and 27 species of mammals have been declared extinct. Over 200 of Australia’s bird species are currently facing extinction, and many more are in decline. The loss of Australia’s bird life – which John Gould himself foresaw as a consequence of colonisation – reflects the loss of natural habitat as a result of land clearing, urbanisation and invasive species.

First Nations bird names

Some examples of Awabakal bird names. Supported by the Awabakal Language Program.

Image: ESEM Projects © Australian Museum

We just have to listen, and remember. Listening to birds can bring us so much joy, and reminds us that we all have a role to play in protecting them.

Aunty Rhonda, Birpai Elder and Knowledge Keeper.

In conversation with First Nations knowledge keepers, insights about Australian birds and the important place they occupy in First Nations culture features in The Birds of Australia STORYBOX and invites reflections on how to care for birds as kin: that is, as an integral part of the unique natural ecosystems that sustain us. The touring digital STORYBOX, depicting a selection of Gould’s illustrations back ‘in the field’, encourages audiences to learn more about the critically endangered birds in their area, and take efforts to protect them.

Touring Exhibition: The Birds of Australia birdscape.

The Birds of Australia by John Gould. Birdscape reimagined by ESEM Projects.

Image: ESEM Projects © Australian Museum
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