First Impressions: exploring early life through printmaking

Dickinsonia by Claire Drinkwater

by Rachel Parle, public enagement manager

In each of our special exhibitions, we complement contemporary scientific research with contemporary art. In recent years this has included Elin Thomas’s crocheted petri dishes, Ian Kirkpatrick’s migration and genetics-themed installation, and who could forget the enormous E. coli sculpture by Luke Jerram?!

First Animals exhibition is on show until 24 February 2020

For our current exhibition, First Animals, we’ve taken this collaboration to a new level by commissioning original works from a total of 22 artists, all part of Oxford Printmakers Co-operative (OPC) – a group of over a hundred printmakers which has been running for more than 40 years.

First Animals looks at the very earliest evidence of life on Earth, dating back half a billion years. Some of the fossils on display are shallow impressions in the rock – the only direct evidence we have that life existed at that time.

Amplectobelua symbrachiata – one of the incredible Cambrian fossils from the Chengjiang site in China

To kick-start the project we ran a series of workshops for OPC artists to meet the Museum researchers working on the exhibition, and to see the fossils first hand. There were also opportunities to draw directly from these unique fossils, many of which have never been displayed in the UK before.

Discussions between researchers and artists revealed fascinating similarities between these ancient fossils and the process of printmaking. Sally Levell, of Oxford Printmakers Co-operative, explains:

I was completely fascinated by the fossil collection in the Museum, especially the fine specimens from Chengjiang and Newfoundland. They are preserved as mere impressions in the rock, so they are, in essence, nature’s prints.

Each printmaker partnered with a researcher who could answer questions, provide extra info and help the artist decide which specimen or subject to depict in their final print. It’s clear from talking to the printmakers that this direct contact with the experts was invaluable and made the work really meaningful.

Xianguangia by Charlie Davies

We couldn’t have worked without the patient explanations and “show and tell” sessions with the three main researchers – Dr Jack Matthews, Dr Imran Rahman and Dr Duncan Murdock. They were just excellent and their dedication to their work was an inspiration to all of us printmakers.

Sally Levell

Over a period of around seven months, ideas blossomed and printing presses were put into action, with the printmakers exploring the forms, textures and evolution of the fascinating first animals. The final result is First Impressions, an enticing art trail of twenty-five prints dotted around the Museum, both within the First Animals exhibition gallery and nestled within the permanent displays.

Ottoia by Jackie Conway

Such a large group of artists brings a huge variety of techniques and styles, all under the umbrella of printmaking; from a bright, bold screen print in the style of Andy Warhol, to a delicate collagraph created from decayed cabbage leaves! To take part in the art trail yourself, simply grab a trail map when you’re next in the Museum.

Workshop printers inking up their plates

But our foray into fossils and printmaking didn’t stop there. OPC member Rahima Kenner ran a one-day workshop at the Museum where participants made their own intaglio prints inspired by the First Animals fossils. The group of eight people featured artists and scientists alike, all keen to capture the unique fossils through print techniques.

Designs were scratched onto acrylic plates and inked up, before a professional printing press created striking pieces to take home. Participants also explored techniques such as Chine-Collé, the addition of small pieces of paper to create texture and colour underneath the print.

It was a delight to be able to share with the group our enthusiasm for these discoveries in the medium of making the drypoint prints and to share their enjoyment of learning and using the new techniques. Some lovely work was produced in a single day.

Rahima Kenner

A plate about to go into the press
A finished print, using intaglio and chine-colle

The First Impressions project has been transformative for the Museum team and for the Oxford Printmakers Co-operative. Catriona Brodribb describes its impact on the printmakers :

It’s been a great opportunity to challenge one’s own artistic boundaries in terms of stretching the imagination, and for our members to throw themselves into something new, and enjoy responding to such ancient material in a contemporary way.

The First Animals and First Impressions exhibitions are open until 24 February 2020 and are free to visit.

Tests of time: Foraminifera and Radiolarians in science, art and 3D

Doctoral researcher Elaine Charwat is exploring the value and meaning of models and casts in the Museum’s collections as part of her PhD. She has recently been studying some fabulous models that help to visualise and understand some of the very, very smallest of specimens…

By Elaine Charwat

The first time I encountered a Radiolarian was in a book – Ernst Haeckel’s (1834-1919) weird and wonderful Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1899-1904). It took comparative morphology – comparing the shapes of organisms – to new giddy heights, scientifically, philosophically and artistically. I felt that giddiness when looking at page after page crammed with crustaceans, orchids, hummingbirds, moths and even bat faces, all exquisitely arranged to celebrate their symmetries, the evolution and kinship of their shapes and forms. It also made visible organisms that are normally all but invisible.

Illustration of Cyrtoidea (table 31) from Kunsterformen der Natur (1899 – 1904) by Ernst Haeckel. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

Foraminifera and Radiolarians are microscopic sea-dwelling organisms. Species may be found as fossils dating from Cambrian times, ca. 500 million years ago, right up to living specimens today.

To Haeckel, they were living proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and for his own belief that morphology was the key to understand the actual processes of evolution, catching it in the act. However, these organisms had two big disadvantages – their unwieldy taxonomy, or the way they are classified, and their minute size: they were difficult to examine and display.

Illustrations of Radiolarians, (table 28). from Die Radiolarien (1862) by Ernst Haeckel. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

Through his illustrations, Haeckel widely popularized them – triggering a Victorian craze for microscopes and microorganisms, as well as influencing art nouveau art and architecture. But there were limits to what an illustration could communicate. Models stepped in, representing these organisms in ways illustrations could not.

Detail from Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899 – 1904)

One defining feature of Radiolarians and Foraminifera is their shells – called “tests”. Variations in shapes of the tests not only indicate that they are different species, but also, excitingly, provide clues about space and time. The tests of Neogloboquadrina pachyderma, for instance, record ocean temperature over geological timescales – their shells coil to the left when water temperatures are relatively cold, and to the right when it is warmer. The potential for research into climate change is obvious. Foraminifera are also important “signature fossils”, helping geologists to determine geological strata.

You really need to see them in glorious 3D to appreciate these tests across geological time, to understand their complex, beautiful shapes. And I felt a similar twang of excitement to my first encounter with them through Haeckel when discovering these extraordinary models here in the Museum as part of my PhD research.

Václav Frič (1839-1916) was a natural history dealer based in Prague. He developed a series of 100 plaster of Paris models of Foraminifera (1861), as well as the stunning papier-maché models of Radiolaria (listed in his catalogue of 1878). He worked closely with Ernst Haeckel.

A selection of Frič’s models in the Museum’s stores

The Frič models oscillate between visible and invisible, illustration and model, art and science, philosophy and theory. They bear witness to a key period in the history of science when they were used to give tangible shape and proof to Charles Darwin’s poignant phrase:  “[…] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Through the models we can “grasp” microorganisms that have been around for over 500 million years; organisms that truly have stood the tests of time.

The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Petri dish to puppetry

Spheres, spirals, rods, corkscrews… bacteria come in strange and beautiful shapes. Our Bacterial World exhibition (19 October 2018 – 28 May 2019) tells the untold story of life on a microscopic scale, and a recent Museum project brought together a research scientist, a group of school students and an artist to explore the patterns, textures and forms of beautiful bacteria. This science and art collaboration led to the creation of three fabulous bacteria-inspired puppets.

Volunteers and puppets in the museum
The puppets let loose in the Museum. Volunteers Tayo, Chantelle and Humaira (hidden behind the blue puppet!), with Carly from the Museum’s public engagement team.

Our Public Engagement team worked with Iffley Academy, a school for students with special educational needs and disabilities in Oxford. The pupils were from the brilliantly-named ‘Jackson Pollock’ class and they fully embraced the bacteria theme, through museum visits, workshops and classroom activities.

As well as visiting Bacterial World, the students had a workshop with Dr Frances Colles, a microbiology researcher from the University of Oxford, where they learnt about the importance of bacteria in their lives. As well as working with the students to create their own bacteria superheroes, Fran talked about her own work and took part in a Q&A, where the students made the most of quizzing a real, live scientist.

One of the character boards that Georgina created with the students

Next, the students spent two days with artist and puppet-maker Georgina Davy, who gave them the chance to experiment with a variety of textiles and techniques, including Japanese shibori dyeing, fringing, plaiting and knotting. The children even created latex faces to ‘personalise’ the bacteria. The pupils worked with Georgina to gather ideas and create mood boards and ‘characters’ for each puppet. She then used these individual pieces to build three giant, bacteria-inspired puppets.

Georgina Davy in her studio, working on the bacteria puppets

Just like the real bacteria that inspired them, the final puppets all have distinctive appearances and styles of movement. One is tall, green and plodding, another is pink, bobbing and quivering. The long, winding Chinese dragon-style puppet is slinky and searching. An artistic interpretation of bacteria, in motion.

Georgina Davy got a lot out of the collaboration and says:

This project has been the most unusual and marvellous project that a puppet maker could work on. Drawing upon scientific information from museum and academic staff that is enhanced and brought to life by students’ imaginations.

This project is unique in that the physical 3D puppet outcomes come from an almost entirely invisible world. Bacteria operate on an unfathomable microscopic scale. I am still finding it remarkable trying to envision this microscopic galaxy of bacteria taking place around us everyday in riots of colour, shape and movement. We cannot see the surreal bacteria forms that wriggle, bounce and swell around us, but they are there, some even tumbling around in forms like Chinese calligraphy. Their secret world is only unlocked by the microscope.

Once the puppets had been revealed to (and played with by) the students, they were transported to the Museum for the finale of the project – a public performance. On Saturday 11 May, three brilliant volunteers, Humaira, Tayo and Chantelle, showed off the work of Georgina Davy and the Jackson Pollock class to Museum visitors. The puppets twisted, shook and wiggled through the aisles, accompanied by percussion – drums and shakers courtesy of volunteers and visitors joining in with the performance.

If you’d like to see more about the Beautiful Bacteria project, we’ve put together a display in the Museum’s Community Case, where you can see original works by the Iffley Academy students. Until 6 August 2019.

The Beautiful Bacteria project was funded by BBSRC.

 

Ruskin 200 Art Competition

By Michelle Alcock, Front of House Deputy Manager

To celebrate the Museum of Natural History and the creativity it inspires, we have launched the Ruskin 200 Art Competition. It opened on Friday 8 February 2019 coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin; an artist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, Ruskin’s views advocating for drawing from direct observation, both in his studies of Gothic architecture, and in his use of a detailed descriptive approach to depict nature in art, heavily influenced the design of the Museum.

WA2013.67 John Everett Millais, ‘John Ruskin’
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

His encouragement led to artists, architects, craftsmen and scientists working together to design the Museum. As a result, they created the neo-Gothic building that stands today as a work of art and a vision of nature in its own right. The Museum’s architecture, decorative details, and collections have served as a source of inspiration for many since it opened in 1860.

Details in the Museum’s architecture, such as this carved capital, were inspired by nature and today provide further inspiration for visiting artists

This year marks the perfect opportunity to showcase the artwork of our visitors. Personally, working on the Front of House team here, I see what an inspiration the building is to our visitors. Every day we spot people of all ages setting up stools, with pencil and sketchbook at the ready, drawing in the Museum. There is so much potential inspiration; beetles carved in stone, vibrant birds’ feathers, glittering gemstones and the intricate decorative ironwork of the building, to name a few.

It is always exciting to see so many of our visitors engaging with the Museum in a creative way, but we rarely see the finished product. I’ve always wanted to know what artwork is created from this point of inspiration. Is it the starting point of a vibrant painting, an intricate pastel drawing or a graphic mixed media collage? The list of possibilities is endless.

A visitor captures the Allosaurus skull on one of our Sensing Evolution tables

Whatever your choice of creative expression, we want to see your interpretation of the Museum and what inspired you, whether it’s the architecture or the collections on display. If you are an amateur or professional artist, and over the age of sixteen, we would like you to submit your artwork to the Ruskin 200 Art Competition.

The competition is open for four months. Do send us images of your final artwork before the closing date of 19 May 2019. Selected artworks from each of the four entry categories will go on display in the Museum during the busy summer holidays.

A visitor taking part in creative activities during our special drawing weekend

Throughout 2019, we’re also running a programme of drawing activities to celebrate Ruskin’s bicentenary. It began with the Ruskin Drawing Weekend on 9 and 10 February, which included lots of different activities to begin the creative process. Look out for our Ready, Steady, Draw! workshops for younger artists coming in May too.

The full competition guidelines, along with further information on the Ruskin-related events we’re running this year, can be found on our website.

Top banner image: WA1931.47 John Ruskin, Design for a Window in the University Museum, Oxford. Image copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

A tale of two seahorses

Real or fake? Do replicas have a value of their own? Elaine Charwat is exploring this in her PhD, using the Museum’s large collection of natural history models and casts to research their role in science. Here she tells the story of the fascinating fish that caught her imagination…

By Elaine Charwat

It all started with a seahorse. Last year, I walked into a little seaside shop, and I spotted a seahorse. I instantly flipped back to the happy day I bought my first dried seahorse as a child, the beginning of a life-long passion for the natural world. The man behind the counter smiled: “It’s a fake.” Really? “3D printed.” It looked absolutely perfect. Tracing its lines with my fingers, I said, “It’s a model”.

Ever since I became interested in models and replications, I have encountered this perception of them as “fakes”. Quite recently, I heard the curator of a natural history museum call the cast of a dinosaur skeleton a “fake”. Models in natural history – and in this I include casts and reproductions – are what the Germans call “Wissensdinge”, objects that contain, distribute and generate knowledge. In this aspect, the real specimen and the model meet. Models are made from a vast array of materials with often astonishing skill and technologies. They represent what we know about a particular organism at a certain point in time. They have a history, a context.

Long live the replica! Most of our most beloved dinosaur skeletons in museums are partly or fully casts of bones, like Stan’s here at the Museum. Almost complete skeletons like Stan’s are extremely rare, and casts allow us to share and preserve them. Accompanying models give the bones “flesh and blood” – and provide a snapshot of what was known about the dinosaur when the model was made.

But they are also ambassadors, and this is something I realised when I held the “fake” 3D-printed seahorse in my hand. While it becomes ethically problematic to buy specimens of organisms like seahorses, something of it is captured, and communicated, in a reproduction. I can still trace its exoskeleton, and marvel at its strange symmetry. This symmetry, incidentally, is being analysed for its potential in robotics. Seahorses have unusual tails – instead of the cylindrical trail structure found in most animals, theirs have a square cross-sectional architecture, resulting in a unique combination of toughness and flexibility. In fact, when studying the unique abilities of the seahorse’s tail, researchers have actually used 3D-printed specimens.

Seahorse from the Museum’s collection. Even in Victorian times, long before 3D printers, there seems to have been a desire to emphasise that souvenir seahorses were “natural” – i.e. not man-made. Was it because seahorses are easily preserved and so attractive when dead and dried?

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a largely unexplored wealth of models and casts. Many of them date to the second half of the 19th Century, the heyday of their production. Made from glass, wax, metal, wood, plaster, papier-mâché or, indeed, actual bone and feathers, they were modelled, cast, sculpted, glued, painted and mounted to enhance and preserve our understanding and appreciation of nature. But they also tell of scientific discoveries and controversies, research and teaching, rivalries and collaboration, politics and society, ideas and identities.

Small IMGP5899
Spot the replica – both the specimen and the 3D printed seahorse are “Wissensdinge”, they have a context and provide valuable information.

I will trace these complex relationships in a collaborative and interdisciplinary PhD project called “Nature of Replication”. This is funded by the AHRC and jointly supervised by the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The 3D-printed seahorse now lives alongside my real seahorse. So I like to think of my project as a journey that started with one seahorse, and continues with another.