Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Penguins Might Fly

  • Can an object be artistic and scientific at the same time?  
  • Can art have a place in science museums?  
  • Why do museum object labels matter?
These questions are the subject of this post, which was prompted by a visit I made recently to the Bell Pettigrew Museum at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland.

The Bell Pettigrew is the University's zoology museum: "a rare survival of a Victorian teaching museum, and wonderfully atmospheric", according to their website.  It's a small, attractively laid-out place, well worth an hour or so of your time.  But I was surprised to find, among the usual bones, some paintings.  This is the first one I saw, in the case dedicated to flightless birds:

The collage-painting depicts a moa, an animal that has been extinct for more than five hundred years.  Here's what the label underneath says:
Male moa (Dinornis giganteus) in breeding plumage (left) guarding its harem of foraging females in the dense subtropical forests of the Oparara Valley
Paul Bartlett
Now, I have no idea how much is known about the breeding plumage, foraging habits or mating practices of this animal, which was wiped out over 300 years before the arrival of European settlers in New Zealand.*  What I am interested in is the authority of the museum label underneath the artist's impression.

In the nearby Penguin case, there's another picture by the same artist.  You shouldn't have any trouble reading the label this time:

The penguins look rather like they're flying (perhaps they're imagining that they are).  But despite the clear impressionism (small-I and big-I) of this painting, I didn't feel the same discomfort as when I saw the moas.  Why not?  It must have been the label.  The first label, with its impressive Latin binomial nomenclature and technical-sounding words like "breeding plumage" and "foraging females", adopts the authoritative tone of a museum curator.  The second is an incomplete sentence: not at all surprising for the title of a work of art, but obviously not sufficient as the label for a museum object.

The obvious questions are: Who is the artist?  What is his level of expertise?  Fortunately the Penguin case also included a brief biography.  Paul Bartlett studied for a PhD in animal behaviour at St Andrews, before becoming a full-time artist.  According to the biography, "he continually strives to find innovative techniques and styles in which to depict his subjects whilst retaining an element of authenticity."

I found this reassuring and, at the same time, worrying.  The artist whose work is displayed in this museum of zoology clearly has both the expertise and the desire to create authentic depictions of animals in their natural habitat, something that may potentially augment the enjoyment and learning opportunities of museum visitors.  But what does "an element of authenticity" mean?

There's also an obvious difference between painting animals that can be seen in countless videos and photographs, and those that are extinct.  For the latter, artistic licence must surely be tempered by a sense of responsibility.  I was reminded of the paintings of Édouard Riou, the young Frenchman who illustrated Louis Figuier's La Terre avant le déluge (1863).  For this monumental work of popular natural history, Figuier commissioned Riou to produce some attractive engravings.  Riou responded with some hugely vivid but also hugely imaginative works of art, like this one.    

Iguanadon and Megalosaur enjoy mutual chomping
La Terre avant le déluge was an instant bestseller, shifting 25,000 copies in the first two years.  Riou went on to work as an illustrator for Jules Verne.  And his illustrations had a huge effect on the way dinosaurs were - and are - imagined (don't forget, no human ever saw a living dinosaur, but we like to think we have a pretty good idea about how they might have behaved).

In the Bell Pettigrew, it's fairly clear that the moa pictured are extinct (though it might have been helpful to include that on the label).  And we can probably be sure that, despite what appears in the collage, its breeding plumage didn't incorporate printed text.  But it does make you wonder about the authority of museum labels.

I'm not arguing that we should go back to having unlabelled, uninterpreted, unconnected skeletons lined up in cases.  But I'm not sure there's a place for artistic licence in zoology museums either.

*I will note that, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, only "two species of Dinornis are considered valid, D. novaezealandiae of the North Island, and D. robustus of the South."  Another website, the excitingly-named, states that D. giganteus and D. robustus are the same thing - two birds that were long considered separate species have recently been identified as males and females of the same species.  But according to, "Dinornis giganteus lived in the North Island of New Zealand and D. robustis in the South Island ... The species Dinornis giganteus and Dinornis struthoides are now placed in the synonymy of Dinornis novaezealandiae."

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Terror and Trabants in Berlin

What makes a memorable museum experience?  As I've worked and researched in museums this year, I've thought a lot about that.  And I thought about it again this week while visiting two very different museums in Berlin.

First, a confession: I'm not a good museum-goer.  My attention span is limited, I like variety, and even if I read information panels diligently, I don't always absorb the information they contain.  But you know something?  I'm not the only one!  Studies of museum visitors show they pass over most interpretive labels without reading them, and rarely follow the paths exhibition designers have mapped out for them.  When was the last time you went through a museum from beginning to end, giving every object and its label your full attention?

While in Berlin at the weekend I visited two museums that addressed different bits of Germany's recent history: The Topography of Terror and The DDR Museum.  The former, located on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, focuses on many aspects of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.  The latter tells the story of life in Communist East Germany from 1945 to 1990.  They each have a difficult story to tell, and do so in radically different ways.

"A Ribbon of Panels"
Permanent exhibition, Topography of Terror
In many ways the Topography of Terror takes a traditional approach.  It is laid out broadly chronologically, with descriptive, illustrated information panels hanging from the ceiling.  Where possible it uses primary sources, and some individual human stories, to draw the visitor into the story it is telling.  There are many scanned documents and photographs on display.

But there's something missing.  This is a museum - where are the objects?  Almost everything in the permanent exhibition - apart from a few audio and video recordings - would have been just the same in a well-illustrated book, such as the one on sale at the museum.

I have taught this topic to various ages of school students, and there was little new for a visitor like me: no attempt to tell a familiar story in striking or thought-provoking ways.  But for someone less familiar with Nazism there was the potential for confusion, as the chronology was unexpectedly broken in places by the Museum's separate presentation of the various institutions of Nazi state terror.  So individual events like Kristallnacht were mentioned or partially explained in two or three separate places, as the roles of overlapping institutions like the SS, SD and various police forces were described.

"A Hands-on Experience of History"
Articles from the Communist coming-of-age ceremony
The DDR Museum was completely different.  Billing itself as "Berlin's interactive museum", it openly aims to draw visitors into the experience of life in the old Communist Bloc.  So as well as reading about it, you can sit in an old cotton-plastic Trabant car, watch propaganda films, try your hand at the decision-making process involved in running a factory, and feel the difference between the Party-approved but poorly-dyed Boxer jeans and the highly subversive Levi's.  There's also a restaurant serving authentic cuisine from behind the Iron Curtain.

Stylish products of a socialist utopia
Now, it goes without saying that it's harder to present a museum about the Nazis in an interactive way.  And the DDR Museum could be accused of making life under Communism seem more bearable, even fun, than it really was.  But with its varied, multisensory approach, it certainly made the learning process more interactive.  And it was more thought-provoking as a result.  Even cheap tricks like hiding information in drawers or cupboards that you have to open, like the clothing catalogue shown here, make you look more closely at them.

words + (horrific) pictures -- is there another way?
Did the Topography of Terror eschew such imaginative presentation because it is dealing with a serious subject that needs to be presented in a straightforward manner?  The first point to make is that their simple, words + pictures presentation is not inherently more objective - the information has been selected and the descriptions written by the museum curators to present a particular picture.  You could even say that it's dishonest to hide this subjective selection process from museum visitors.

I'm tempted to suggest that the weight of the subject matter allowed the curators of the Topography of Terror to be rather lazy in their exhibition design.  It's as if they thought: this is important - people should have to work to learn about it.

But that's not why I go to museums.  I don't always expect to have fun - certainly not in a museum called "The Topography of Terror", but I do expect some originality and freshness of presentation.  I want to have an experience, to feel something.  If you want to find out about Nazi terror, read Richard J. Evans' three-part general history, Robert Gellately's groundbreaking work on the Gestapo, or Victor Klemperer's moving diaries of life as a Jew in Dresden.  Best of all, watch the BBC documentary The Nazis: A Warning From History - you will certainly feel plenty as you are gripped by its chilling interviews with victims, witnesses and perpetrators of Nazi atrocities.

Tasteful decor... reliable news... those were the days.
On the other hand, if you want to experience a glimpse of life in the old GDR, I strongly recommend the DDR Museum.  I can't speak for the quality or authenticity of the Jägerschnitzel in their restaurant, but it is an excellent learning experience.

What do you think?  What kind of presentation styles do you like in museums?  How long is your ideal museum visit?  Feel free to comment!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Stars Without Streetlights

I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what it must have been like for a medieval astronomer to use an astrolabe.  It's tricky.  Apart from all the things we might not know, like precisely who used them and why, there's another major problem: light pollution.  Even in a small city like Cambridge the street lights blot out all but the brightest stars.

Which is why I was blown away when I saw this picture:

New York 40° 42’ 16’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 3:40

It is by French artist Thierry Cohen.  Here's what his website says about his work:
He photographs the world’s major cities, seeking out views that resonate for him and noting the precise time, angle, and latitude and longitude of his exposure.  As the world rotates around its axis the stars that would have been visible above a particular city move to deserts, plains, and other places free of light pollution.  By noting the precise latitude and angle of his cityscape, Cohen is able to track the earth’s rotation to places of atmospheric clarity like the Mojave, the Sahara, and the Atacama desert.  There he sets up his camera to record what is lost to modern urban dwellers.

Compositing the two images, Cohen creates a single new image full of resonance and nuance.  The work is both political and spiritual questioning not only what we are doing to the planet but drawing unexpected connections between disparate locations. Equally importantly it asks: what do we miss by obscuring the visibility of stars?  As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, there is a disjunction with the natural world which both Cohen and science posit causes both physical and psychological harm.  Cities that never sleep are made up of millions of individuals breaking natural cycles of work and repose. Cohen’s photographs attempt to restore our vision.
You can see more of his beautiful and thought-provoking images of starlit cityscapes on the Danziger Gallery website.

Paris 48° 50’ 55’’ N 2012-08-13 lst 22:15

Touching, But What's the Point?

by Jenny Bulstrode

Astrolabes and Stuff is proud to present its first ever guest post!  For this we must thank Jenny Bulstrode, a student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge.

Quadrants, sextants, octants, none of them really meant much to me until last year. They’re all descendants of astrolabes. They’re all based around a circle with a scale marked on it. They’re all just fans of metal with bits on. The only way I could see the Navy using one was as an elaborate bottle opener.

No, I'm still not sure what it is
If anyone asks all you generally need to know is this versatile bit of kit was a tool for measuring the angle between two distant objects. This made it handy for everything from telling the time to surveying.  Last year I found out a bit on how they were used but rather more on how one particular eighteenth century instrument maker, John Bird, made them, and why we should care. It’s these last two points I want to share with you.

‘Now use your hands to warm the metal.. except you Bob,
your hands are too clammy’ (not Bird’s original words)
Metal expands when heated. Enough to get the lid off that gherkin jar by running it under the hot tap, more than enough to mess up the precision process of marking a scale on a circle. John Bird used the warmth of his hands to standardise the expansion of his tools and the circle he was working on. As if that doesn’t seem odd enough, he then wrote about it, in his instruction manual.

Temperature control was so important Bird wouldn't allow a fire to warm the room. Even candles were forbidden because they gave out too much heat. (Actually my mum has a similar policy for controlling utility bills). With little light to work by Bird detected points and traced guideline scratches using his fingertips. Magnifying lenses were widely used by eighteenth century instrument makers, including Bird, but what he really had faith in was his sensitive touch.   

Almost as though fingertips were designed
to move tiny puncture marks in metal…
Finally, when checking back revealed a point slightly out of position, Bird would ‘coax’ it into place. Extraordinary as it sounds, through fingertip pressure on the brass, he would shuffle the point along. His fingertips worked to control, detect, and even correct the scale marking process.

All very touching (see what I did there?) but what’s the point? Three things stand out to me. Firstly, John Bird was one of the last circle dividers working exclusively by hand. Towards the end of his life new, automated machines started taking up the job. That’s the old story of mass-production taking over, right? Except for nearly a century after his death these ‘automated’ machines used handmade circles, including Bird’s, to cut copies from. The action of the machine had to be guided, by hand. In fact even when the machines made errors, which they did, often, the points were still ‘coaxed’ into place. Bird might’ve died but his hands were still very active...

Not a bomb, just a highly controlled loaf
Secondly, handmade does not just mean surprisingly expensive bread. Of course it means those elements of delicacy, care, and exclusivity we associate with a walnut and fig pavé but it can also mean industrial quality control. When Bird used his hands to control the expansion of the metal he was setting an industrial standard. Granted it was one based on his body temperature but the principle for control was the same.

Finally, and above all: Bird achieved an unprecedented level of precision in his instruments. In fact, he divided circles so precisely he was commissioned to make the Mural Arc at Greenwich. This Arc set the standard for British Mean Time. I think if there is a point to be taken from all this it is that a huge idea like ‘Time’ can be traced back, defined even, to something as human as the pressure of a man’s fingertip.

While instrument makers were busy constructing time with their hands,
Time the avatar went to all the good parties