There is a long tradition of art bringing dead things in museums to life. The Natural History Museum is full of specimens that give us windows into life in all its glory. But many artists give our collections and our ways of working new and unexpected lives. The Museum’s Art-Science Interest Group (ASIG) brings together the museum staff and artists (and in some cases these inhabit the same bodies) to explore the collections, and life, the universe and everything, through an artistic lens.
Soon after I started work here, I was introduced to an artist, Tessa Farmer, who had just started a residency in the museum. Tessa found herself hijacked by my interest – parasitoid wasps – and the wasps and the collections in general found themselves hijacked by Tessa’s imagination.
Tessa is a sculptor, not of marble or bronze but of dead creatures and plants. The resulting exhibition (Little Savages) invaded the Central Hall with quite an impact, the brutality of nature evoked in a gory diorama, and the collections thoroughly infiltrated by an animation with an other-worldly soundtrack by Mark Pilkington. Wasps have continued to play a role in Tessa’s fairy nightmares and I was hooked on the pleasure that comes from setting artists free amongst the collections.
The NHM Art-Science Interest Group was formed by the artist Gemma Anderson, evolutionary researcher Peter Olson, and myself, to document the work of artists in the collections, to expose us all to new ideas and wonderful art, and to show the often hidden value that artists bring to science and to our collections.
The arts tell us new stories about the world, in ways that complement our science, or sometimes in joyful antagonism to the way scientists work. Gemma Anderson and Johanna Love have worked with our science and scientists in very different ways but there are distinct similarities in their work. Particularly, close observation gives you insight. And in that respect, art and science are very close indeed.
Gemma Anderson: an artist’s reflections on working with the NHM
Working with specimens
In order to test my intuitions of the shared morphological characteristics of animal, mineral and vegetable species for the Isomorphology project , I chose to observe directly from specimens in the museum and the field.
Drawing museum specimens from life is the preferred method for the exploration of the Natural History Museum’s collections, and vital to this exploration is the handling of each specimen, which activates a to-ing and fro-ing between the optic and the haptic.
Handling and sensing the specimen can evoke ideas about representing form and texture through line and mark-making, for example: sharp edges can be represented through angular lines or the hand can be used as the measure of scale, noticing that spindles on a shell are a finger’s distance apart.
The act of handling museum specimens reduces the physical distance between the observer and the observed. In this handling process, the duration of viewing might differ greatly, all the way from a glance to a profound meditation. The drawing process, as a lived, physical experience, provides embodied connection with morphological structures.
The handling of museum specimens allows for an intimate gaze and connection to the object. The ability to rotate and to choose a perspective from which to draw is crucial in order to find the angle that reveals the morphology clearly and makes it comparable to the morphology of others. The drawer must select the salient information from the subject. The decisions I make when drawing from the museum specimen are different from the decisions scientists make, although the approach has many shared characteristics.
The ‘Isomorphology’ project involves observational drawing of resemblances between animal, vegetable and mineral specimens. It has developed through engagement with scientific institutions, especially the Natural History Museum, and the direct observation of specimens held in scientific collections.
As in the natural sciences, in this project, systems of classification are intended to organize information (biological, mineral or animal), and to facilitate the recording and communication of this information. This artistic enquiry into morphological resemblance has uncovered an alternative, ‘extra-scientific’ method of classification – stimulated both by the practice of drawing specimens and by literature that explores the philosophy of classification and the possibilities for alternatives to the standard Linnaean system.
The Isomorphology study – a project towards creating a series of artworks, which draw together specimens of each form species – began by listing a two-dimensional ‘bauplan’ for each of the form species and visual lists of examples, informed by the images in Evolution without Selection and Phytognomica.
Using these sources and my own observational drawings as a starting point, I compiled a list of specimens held within the Museum collections that relate to the form species of Isomorphology.
This provided enough information to approach the NHM for permission to access its research collections.
These initial lists, which collected many more species’ names than could be drawn, operated as a flexible way to navigate the morphology of animal, mineral and vegetable specimens within collections. This navigation aimed to select specimens to draw based on the criteria of resemblance to the form species of Isomorphology. The next stage utilized these lists as a guide to ‘screen’ hundreds of specimens with curators in the zoology, mineralogy and botany collections at the Museum.
As this work demanded the observation of specimens, it required a process of attaining permission to observe and to draw, which I coordinated (with special thanks to Gavin Broad!) on each occasion. Access to many specimens, especially valuable minerals in the NHM collections, is limited and the Isomorphology artworks offer an alternative mode of display and means of making these collections visible.
On the impact of Isomorphology
Isomorphology is a practice and theoretical framework that has been shaped by my engagement with a number of scientific institutions and practitioners and by my investigations into the history and philosophy of scientific knowledge. This artistic research can be understood as a practice that engages with scientific practice and institutions and therefore as a strand of the current ‘Art/Science’ culture.
Isomorphology depends on its tools and unique conceptual model and correlates to what Brett Wilson describes as typical to the Art/Science process that ‘may not simply be a question of looking for information in a different place (or time) with different detectors, but of learning to see in a different way by creating new conceptual models’ (Wilson et al. 2014: 18).
Isomorphology ‘physically’ brings specimens in relation to each other in an ‘extra-scientific’ way. The order that Isomorphology creates does not otherwise exist in the museum. Gathering scientific specimens, in the name of art, is a necessary part of the observational drawing process. Thus, the request to ‘draw’ rather than observe specimens validates a temporary disorder and intervention of the museum system, which lasts only as long as the drawing process, after which only the drawn record of this active disorder remains. This creates a non-trivial intervention on the existing taxonomic model of the museum.
The displaying together of specimens in my work space at the NHM, curated by an extra-scientific interest, generated interest from the scientists who called in or passed by, each time providing an opportunity for sharing ideas and questions.
Schiller once remarked that Goethe’s interest in science was contagious (Zajonc 1999: 22). I have sometimes felt that the study of Isomorphology has been ‘contagious’ in the context of the NHM, as the nature of study demanded scientists to re-order their materials in a new workspace and with new working groups. Museum staff have offered their reflections on how exposure to the Isomorphology study has influenced the way they conceive of their collections and has generated their own ‘extra-scientific’ questions.
If you would like to read more, Gemma’s book, Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science, is now available.
Jo Love: the concept of dust
Over the last few years, through my fine art practice, I have become increasingly interested in exploring the concept of dust and its physical and metaphysical implications.
In 2013, I completed a PhD at Chelsea College of Arts that examined how the existence of dust on the surface of photographic printed image shifted visual perception and the act of viewing an image. This was an exciting time, exploring how such a simple act as drawing particles of dust on the surface of a printed image brought about entirely new sense of reading and meaning to the work.
In the context of photography, dust is the enemy. Its presence within an image suggests lack of technical skill and the fallibility of the camera apparatus in keeping out air and light. However, through drawing I wanted to bring dust into the photograph, to make an image more akin to how we look at the world – through dust suspended in the air, through a dusty haze that contains bits of everything in our known world and beyond – dust that is in the process of disintegrating and has the potential to reform. As everything gradually disappears it turns to dust, which also has the ability to reconstitute itself into other forms.
Having completed a PhD I approached Dr Alex Ball, Head of the Imaging and Analysis Centre at the Museum, and asked if I could bring in some samples of dust to look at through the electron microscope. As my previous work examined dust on a scale that could be visible to the human eye, a layer of ‘grey stuff’ that could be wiped by a cloth, I now wanted to go deeper to see what dust actually looks like. As a large part of my art practice is about drawing, I began looking at particles of graphite dust. I’ve always used a pencil made from graphite, but I was interested to see what graphite looked like – beyond the power of human vision.
The image through electron microscopy is immediately different from that captured through the standard photographic lens. The beam of electrons in the SEM bounces from the gold-palladium coated surfaces of a series of prepared samples. The reflected electrons highlight form and surface, revealing grey, cold, circular landscapes. The samples are held on small circular slips. Images gradually appear within a pulsating, visually noisy computer screen as electrons bounce across the sample surface and the image is brought into focus.
These images emerging from the dust are alien and strange, grey in tone, often appearing quite ‘monstrous’. The tangled masses of forms and surfaces, or lonely angular fragments appear like lunar landscapes. It is this strange, disconnected feeling when looking at these images that interests me as an artist. Here my imagination is stirred into the depths of the unknown, rather than fascinated by scientific factual understanding.
In his essay Eye and Mind (1964) Merleau-Ponty states, ‘science manipulates things and gives up living in them’. Science brings a world of images that are completely detached from our own familiar, material world. I am interested in the disconnection between the scientific image and human perception. I find that the image derived from modern digital technology lacks something akin to human perception of material and time. It lacks the possibility of any contact with dust, or the trace of engagement with materials and process.
The electron microscope enables us to examine the materiality of the world at a level of detail that is completely unfamiliar and slightly unnerving. My samples of dust reveal a rich microscopic world of things that surround us – floating in the air and settling on surfaces, hidden in crevices of buildings.
It is this disconnect between the image emerging through science and how we experience the world that drives me to take the SEM images into the practice of drawing.
I am making large-scale pencil drawings of each particle of dust. The drawings are slow and laborious, in contrast to the speed of the technological capturing of the image. Interestingly these drawings also stir up questions of the perception of scale. Although microscopic, the images could be the reverse – landscapes, mountains or rocks. This act of drawing by hand brings about an entirely new apprehension of time, materiality and weight.
From the small printouts of the electron micrographs, I am able to re-think and re-negotiate the image, attempting to bring it back into the physical, tactile and material world. In drawing from or within the original ‘technical’ image, I feel I am possibly throwing into question the very imaging technology that I am using and even questioning the scientific approach through which the images are derived.
In the next stages of this work I am using dust collected from my family’s old home in the centre of Hamburg, Germany. The house sits in the centre of Hamburg and withstood the intense bombing of WW2. In this dust collected from the attic I am interested in the particular narratives I am able to suggest around the notion of place, time and ruin. The building becomes a holding bay for memory through its collection of dust. The SEM reveals this dust as even more unusual forms and surfaces – dust mite carcasses, vegetable matter, pollen, building rubble and much more yet to be seen. Wonderfully beautiful, some dark and ominous.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, in Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. Thomas Baldwin (London & New York: Routledge Press. 2004), 121.
One Reply to “Contemporary art at the Natural History Museum”
Thank you for highlighting the work of some amazing artists! Loved the dust – it’s like an alien landscape….
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