One Specimen, Five Ways of Seeing

Making Science Visible

Kath Weider-Roos is the Creative Arts Producer at A&D. She snaps photos and asks questions.

This photograph hanging in the hallway gallery caught my eye the other day. I had to look closer to gauge its reality: it appeared to be some strange sculptural creation--  a disturbing hybrid of a childhood teddy bear and a....moist labradoodle fetus?

As it turns out, this is not a sculpture involving some student’s unresolved early childhood issues. It’s a photo of an actual specimen that can be found in the Mammals Collection at the Museum of Zoology, a sub section of the Exhibit Museum of Natural History on central campus.

The subject in the photo is a sloth, which was student Carolyn Nowak’s chosen specimen for the class Making Science Visible, taught by cross-over artist/scientist Brad Smith.  (Brad Smith has a dual appointment in the department of Radiology and School of Art & Design and has made a career out of bridging the worlds of science and art through his work using MRI technology to visualize embryos.)

Brad’s class began with a behind-the-scenes tour of all the collections at the Museum. Pouring through the rows and rows of pickled frogs, drawers full of stuffed peacocks, and shelves loaded with mammal bones the students were asked to pick one specimen, and one specimen only, to observe, draw, photograph, x-ray and interpret throughout the semester.

Carolyn Nowak (see sloth image above) knew she wanted to work with an intact animal, so when looking for her specimen she concentrated on the mammal fluids room. She writes, “Most of the specimens were rodents, their buggy eyes bleached white from the alcohol. The sloth caught my eye because it looked almost alive. Its eyes were closed so they didn't look all scary and white, and its mouth was almost in a smile. He looked like he was peacefully sleeping, floating there in the brownish liquid.”

Below, Amphibian/Reptilian Collection Manager Greg Schneider tries to interest the students in the Goliath Frog, one of the largest frogs in the world and found in the tropical rainforests of Cameroon.  The museum’s amphibian/reptile collection has 425,000 individual specimens and is the second largest collection in the world.

From tiny hummingbirds to giant ostriches, Janet Hinshaw introduces the students to the bird collection. In the foreground-- rows and rows of Scarlet Tanagers.

Here, Janet holds up the Sword-billed Hummingbird for the students to see.

Student Christina Ley chose the South American bird, the Quetzal, from the bird collection. Below are her responses to the drawing and photo assignments

Choosing just one out of the thousands of juicy specimens to be found in the museum's collections was a challenge, but Brad wanted to reduce the variables in the assignments so students could clearly see the impact of various approaches to scientific material. ‘Sometimes direct observation and drawing is called for, but often the artist is required to interpret. For example, you can’t look at a cadaver and convey the idea of muscle tissue. In actuality it’s too messy for a viewer to make sense of. The artist needs to ‘interpret’ what s/he sees, using a cross between direct observation drawing and interpretive drawing in order to communicate how muscle tissue appears in the body.”

After committing to one specimen, each student spent an entire month in the museum learning about and observing his/her chosen subject.

There, the students worked on the first assignment-- direct observation drawing.

Carolyn says, “The hardest part about working with the sloth was depicting its hair. Sloths have hollow hairs so they're extra thick. I actually had to try quite hard to capture the texture.”

Next the students arranged for a photo shoot with their specimens, arriving with lights, tripods, macro lenses, sets, and backgrounds to create a photographic representation of their chosen creature. This explains how this snowshoe hare came to look like a gigantic pussy willow pinned to an abstract landscape of budding green. (Photo by Erica Lazar.)


Casey Wasko's photograph of the bat...


Next up, students used x-ray photography to explore the specimens. It was another kind of photo shoot really, but one involving the radiologists-turned-photographers Karen Carter and Jim Good in the Department of Radiology at the U of M hospital.



Radiology required that all the specimens arrive in zip lock bags — a particularly difficult rule for the penguin. But Brad was able to purchase shrinkable sweater bags so the penguin could comply. Students sat in the waiting room with their specimen in their laps along with patients waiting for their own diagnostic x-rays.

Again, students were in charge of the shoot, making compositional decisions for their pieces. This is how a beanie baby bunny turned up next to the katydids.

(Erica McTurk actually went into the lab twice, the second time armed with the bunny so she could better accentuate the qualities of the katydids, which were tiny and difficult to x-ray..)


The next assignment asked students to communicate a concept/idea about their specimen such as life cycles, migration patterns, etc.


Erika Lazar depicts the molting patterns of the snowshoe hare...

The last assignment was an emotional or expressive response to the subject. 

Amanda Mayer created a rain stick in response to the cicada she had been studying....

Casey Wasko created a bat that literally gets in your hair...

For her final assignment Carolyn chose to make a sloth doll using twine to showcase the unique qualities of the sloth’s hair.

Though about half the students were interested in a career in scientific illustration, the other half confessed to simply having an interest in science. 

“Making Science Visible” is of course a large topic and Brad could have chosen any number of scientific areas to explore - physics, neuroscience, molecular biology– but he wanted the students to start out addressing real physical specimens rather than the more complicated problem of visualizing abstract concepts. 

I recently read this article calling for the fusion of the currently distinct cultures of art and science, asking for us to move beyond the current paradigm where artists are called in to communicate scientific ideas and concepts.  The article by Jonah Lerher asks: is it possible for these two fields to learn from each other?

"But what of the collaboration between science and the arts? Are we really prepared to live with a permanent cultural schism? If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we’ll need to create a new movement... [The goal of this movement] will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments, which lead to new works of art and so on. Instead of ignoring each other, or competing, or co-opting each other in naïve or superficial ways, science and the arts will truly impact each other. The old intellectual boundaries will disappear. Neuroscience will gain new tools with which to confront the mystery of consciousness and modern physics will improve its metaphors. Art will become a crucial source of scientific ideas."

It seems the university is a good place for Lehrer's new culture to be born. Perhaps it starts with a quick bus stop from North Campus down to main.


Ashley Boudrie and the Amia Calva from the Fish Collection



Ji-Woo Won and the horned beetle from the Insects Collection.




Great idea for a class. Seems like it would appeal to many types of learners and creatives. And to have access to back rooms of the Natural History Museum.. cool!

Posted by georgia harker on May 02, 2011

What a beautiful collection! I am deeply impressed by the variety and depth of artistic interpretations, from photography to drawing to sculpture to the take-off on Pat the Bunny! Thanks for this window onto the art/science interface!

Posted by Aina Bernier on June 08, 2011





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