Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Aesthetics and the Collector's Cabinet

I am both a scientist and an artist - and while those may seem like two opposing identifiers - there are rare times when I find something that satisfies both of these aspects of my personality. Artfully done biological collections are one of these things.

The Victorian Era gave rise to a fantastic hobby among distinguished gentlemen of the time - that is the collection of various objects of natural history. The measure of a dapper fellow's collection was a social status marker, and thanks to their ego, there are several rather impressive private assemblages of bones, hides, fossils, and preserved specimens across the biological kingdom.

I am shamelessly fascinated by such collections. The Walters Art Museum has a room which, rather successfully, uses the painting "The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector's Cabinet" to mimic what one of these private hordes would look like. This got me very excited, gentle reader, because I am a huge sucker for natural wonders. Corals, fossils, stones, bones, leopard skins, moose heads, bugs pinned in boxes, microscopes, dried flora, and slimey things in jars! All displayed with the touch of an artist's design.

Not only do these collections satisfy me on a intellectual, scientific level but there's something about the aesthetic of these things that my brain really indulges. The items themselves are beautiful and interesting - the textures of skulls, the construction of insects, the intricate patterns of corals. But the design of the objects that surround them - slide microscopes, various sized bottles with caps and corks, boxes with glass tops, magnifying glasses - makes me pretty giddy, too.

It should be noted that there is a significant difference between this highly aesthetic Victorian Era style of collecting and the more legitimate scientific cataloging of nature. There is a really exciting Naturalist Center that is a part of the Smithsonian Institute that serves as a public study center of such collections. Here there are hundreds of preserved animals - tagged and named and stored in drawers for scientific study and comparison. While this kind of collection lacks the artful presentation, the sort of playful "isn't this cool and gorgeous and fantastic?" aspect, I could still spend about a thousand hours sifting through the collection.

Apparently I'm not the only dork who thinks biology is beautiful. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is housing an exhibit called Transitions: Photographs by Robert Creamer. He's also a big fan of the Naturalist Center (using some of their specimens as subjects) and also takes fantastic photographs of flora in various stages of decay. Now that Spring is slowly creeping back into our lives I expect there to be plenty of opportunities to appreciate the aesthetics of nature and to work on a Collector's Cabinet of my own.
(orginally posted 3/16/07 at

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