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Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies

American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
June 25, 2011 - December 14, 2014
Exhibit website: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/picturing-science.

Reviewed by Emma Zuroski, University of Auckland; and Hannah Star Rogers, Columbia University


Hung in what would otherwise be considered a hallway bypass between the Hall of African Mammals and the African Peoples Gallery is the exhibit Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies.  The 20 sets of images included in the exhibit all resulted from ongoing research projects at the American Museum of Natural History and have been produced through advanced imaging technologies.  The relationship between science and art presented here does not breach any conventional popular views.

The notion that ‘science happens here’ need not be explained once inside the hallowed halls of the Museum.  That this science can also be aesthetically pleasing appears to be a revelation for the curators, and a tool with which they hope to entice the general audience into a dialogue with science.  The exhibit is comprised of various components that work to contextualize these images as either scientific or artistic.  So while it implicitly, and on occasion explicitly, separates out art and science as independent pursuits, the resulting overall effect of the exhibit almost succeeds in locating these images in both spheres.

Each image, or set of images, is presented as part of the work of a specific museum scientist and includes a description of the image making process.  In each case, the visual image is depicted as solving (resolving) a specific scientific question/problem.  A developing tear in one of the famous taxidermied African elephants from the aforementioned Hall is explained through an x-ray of the elephant’s head.  The creation of photomontage aides in the identification of various species through advanced imaging of specific anatomies.  These images are to be understood as part of the scientific work of the Museum and not as products unto themselves.

While the captions for the exhibit images work to contextualize them as scientific, the gallery is designed to legitimize them as art.  To this effect the exhibit adheres to the conventions of gallery art including mounting and color in a nod to Warhol and other pop artists.  The deep maroon gallery walls and blindingly artificial colors used in the images harken to the 1980s and an era of early computer graphics.  The coloration of the images is very rarely addressed.

The images are all mounted with corresponding information panels that uniformly provide a description along with three categorical identifiers: the researcher, the topic - intriguingly labeled as either “discovering or understanding” - and the technology used to produce the image.  Each of these categories defines the images within the context of scientific work.  Noticeably none of the images are dated, giving the impression that this is current and cutting edge.  These panels have been designed not unlike a computer app and almost invite the observer to click on each of the categories for further information.  Although they are static text panels, they appear as if they could be digital and, therefore, interactive.  For all the information on the scientific processes at work, there is an absence of information on the aesthetic design of each image.

Just as the colors go unexplained, so too do issues related to scale, perspective, or repetition.  The emphasis on these images as tools of scientific research seems to imply that these components are incidental to the process. This contributes to the overarching message that science can result in, rather than construct, beautiful things; in effect it naturalizes the aesthetic qualities of the images. The exhibit is strongly focused on image production but singles out production in scientific terms rather than in artistic ones. The extra-large information panel that describes in detail the various advanced imaging technologies contributes to this effect.

The exhibit strives to contextualize these images as both science and art and, in doing so, has reified the categorical distinction.  In order to bring these categories together, they have been rarified and, then, rhetorically reinforced through text and design. These images, set in their gallery context and accompanied by detailed wall captions, offer an opportunity to think about what makes an image art or science.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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