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Natural Histories.FinalHannahandEmma.docx

Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum's Library

by Tom Baione, Curator
American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
October 19, 2013 to October 12, 2014
Exhibit website: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/natural-histories.

Reviewed by Hannah Star Rogers
Columbia University

hsr2120@columbia.edu

and Emma Zuroski
University of Auckland

emma.zuroski@gmail.com

In one pair of panels, reproduced from the 1758 Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium…(Natural history of the native frogs…) amphibians are shown first engaged in the process of reproduction and, then, as the object of dissection. One is splayed with its skin pinned back as if positioned on an invisible dissection tray.  The coupling of the two images highlights that the act of dissection portrayed in the second panel contributes to the artist’s visualization of the activity portrayed in the first.

This visual representation of the process of observation is one of the highlights of the exhibit, Natural Histories, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Covering a broad thematic cross-section of science image-making (artists, scientists, styles, and natural phenomena), Natural Histories appeals to the viewer to reflect back both the people and organisms as they once appeared.

Inspired by the 2012 book of the same name, the exhibit Natural Histories offers viewers 50 enlarged color images from the American Museum of Natural History's Rare Book Collection. The curators have selected many well-known publications, including Maria Sibylla Merian’s 1719 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium and John Gould’s birds from The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839 - 1843).

The diverse selection of attractive images from popular expeditions familiar to contemporary publics likely to visit AMNH seems in line with its pedagogical mission. Given this, and the explicit interest in the notion of discovery, it is hard to understand why this exhibit does not contextualize the images in ways that would allow viewers to imagine the experience of wonder the first viewers of these images must often have felt, but instead utilizes the wall text largely to discuss the accuracy of the depictions.

The wall text for Albertus Seba’s Two-toed Sloth points out that the animal is depicted inaccurately because contemporary zoology understands that the sloth hangs as it climbs, whereas Seba’s sloth is shown climbing in an upright position. Through such examples, viewers are asked to use their modern eyes to look for problems of accuracy in images that in many cases were the first to depict a particular organism. This has the effect of decontexualizing images, working at cross-purposes against the careful work the curators have done to tell us about their publication and reception.

What this exhibit does prompt is the question of what is meant by accuracy. Since this exhibit focuses on the concept of discovery, it raises the issue of how accuracy can be assessed in the absence of a comparison. Without other representations of a particular organism, as in the case of the image of two hippos created before their shipment from Cairo to the London Zoo, the readers of the Proceedings of the London Zoological Society would have been unable to readily assess the accuracy of Joseph Wolf’s (1820–1899) image.

A similar contextual problem attends the case of Renard’s fish, produced by unknown artists. Its caption reads: “... fish with imaginative colors and patterns and strange, un-fishlike expressions” begs the question of what a ‘fish-like’ expression might have meant for viewers. Current criteria of accuracy may be quite different from those in the original historical context. Questions of accuracy may be understood as a style problem: contemporary versions of that would constitute an accurate fish expression and what visual languages might best encode this are unlikely to be the same as the conventions of the artists in question.

In other images, text points to instances of inaccuracy to explain the context of image production. The upright sloth reveals, the caption suggests, that Seba sketched the image from a dead specimen, therefore able to observe anatomy but not behavior. The exhibit points out moments in which the graphics betray the assumption of direct observation, yet indirect observations were vital both to image creation and acts of producing scientific knowledge. The implication is that a lack of direct encounters with the organisms would have problematized knowledge production, rather than understanding that image-making and its accompanying knowledge proceeded from the gap and subsequent mediation between the observed organism composite images as copied from a variety of sources, based on texts, or even drawn from collected specimens.

Yet this is likely a contemporary misapprehension. Artists and natural historians seem to be able to create foundational knowledge, as some of the more important and recognizable images within the exhibit suggest. They are evidence that immediacy was not a requisite part of natural history image-making. The exhibit’s image of Haeckel’s siphonophores directly cites the Challenger expedition without mentioning that Haeckel only became involved in creating images to document findings after the voyage concluded in 1876.

In short, Natural Histories appeals to viewers to reflect on the practices of natural history in the moments the exemplar images were created. If viewers look carefully, these images can serve as mirrors reflecting both the organisms and the conventions of natural history as a scientific process.


Last Updated 29th August 2014

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