Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Tools


of an Exhibition

by kavak nimer

Published on February 26, 2013, Modified on March 17, 2013

  • Description:

    Visitors can get up close and personal to fluorescent leech bacteria, an extinct rodent’s dental record, and a dilapidated taxidermy elephant’s ear at the American Museum of Natural History’s, “Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Tools.” The exhibition takes us to the frontiers of the Museum’s scientific research and how scientists’ use advanced imaging technologies to piece together the mysteries in a range of fields including anthropology, arachnology, and astrophysics.

    Curator, Dr. Mark Siddall, a leech specialist in the Museum’s invertebrate zoology division, worked with the designers in the exhibits department to mount and display about 125 of the Museum’s best of images grouped into 20 printed collections.

    Also included is a large wall panel that explains how the various imaging tools used in the exhibition work. With simple illustrations, we learn computed tomography machines rotate a sample and expose it to X-rays to build the image data into 3-D models.

    One cannot help but be awe-struck by the details the scientists captured. One print details the corpse of a dyed cichlid fish. Blue and red biological dyes the cartilage. Then, digestive enzymes, called trypsin, with a horde of other chemicals, break down the proteins and muscles. What’s left is a striking look at the mechanisms inside an underwater creature.

    The prints are visually attractive and the scientific studies behind them are all the more fascinating, but the exhibition feels heavy and static because of the stagnant, illustrated, descriptive panels. It’s the presentation that doesn’t live up to the images’ visually arresting character and the academically sound scientific research. Moreover, there are no resources on where to find more information, which leave visitors feeling unsatisfied.

    For example, one wall panel explains how X-ray scans of an Ancient Egyptian blade stuck inside a leather sheath was safer than trying to pry the blade out of the sheath. With X-rays, the anthropologist can read the elaborate writing on the blade. But what does the writing say? Is the blade on display elsewhere in the museum? Is there another exhibition that offers more background information on Ancient Egyptians? None of these questions are answered.

    There are no resources, both in the exhibition and online, that direct visitors to find more about the photographs on display. All of the above is interesting, but as a whole it felt static and doesn’t guide visitors through an in-depth analysis of the science or the use of imaging technology.

    It’s a shame, because the exhibition offers up a lot of interesting material. The exhibition could have included short video clips that feature interviews with the Museum’s scientists explaining their research or how they use the imaging tools. Or, each print’s wall panel could note which Museum Hall corresponds to the research on display. Better yet, the exhibition could have created educational material to their online website.

    Some may say the focus of “Picturing Science” are the intricate pictures that spark interest. If the exhibition is to stay true to the AMNH’s mission, “To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe,” sparking interest is not enough (AMNH website).

    “Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies” can be seen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City through June 24, 2013.

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