Intersections of Art and Science at Harvard and Amherst

A fantastic calcite specimen from the Harvard Natural History Museum.

I recently made it to Boston for a quick visit while on Spring break. In addition to finding some real gems in some local bookshops (Commonwealth Books deserves mention), I had a chance to visit Harvard’s Natural History Museum and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. On the Natural History side,  “Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight” traced the pervasive influence of microbes inside and outside of human bodies, while  “Glass Flowers: The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants” allowed for an upclose glimpse of the breathtaking collaboration between artists and scientists at the turn of the century. The precise glass models of flowers made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka of Dresden on display were used in the teaching of botany at Harvard well into the twentieth century. I couldn’t help but think of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s work on the history of scientific representation in their 2007 Objectivity. 

Crossing over to the Peabody I was immediately taken with a short video series featuring the anthropologist and musician Jose Cuellar playing and discussing a collection of Mesoamerican clay ocarinas. Below I have posted a video of Cuellar’s lecture and performance at Harvard in 2016. Cuellar is an impressive musician, anthropological theorist, and time traveler of sorts if you have time watch it.

After struggling to absorb the fantastic offerings at the Natural History Museum and the Peabody, I  stumbled upon the  “Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943-55” exhibition just up the street at the Harvard Art Museum. The show is up until the start of June 2018, and it is worth the trip if you can make it. Unfortunately, my book budget was exhausted by the time I made it so I couldn’t afford the handsome catalog but it is on the to buy list.

“Botanist” by Juro Kubicêk, 1950. Image Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Antonia Paepcke DuBrul Fund

This excellently curated exhibition reveals the rich and mostly neglected artistic flourishing that occurred in the wake of the holocaust and the Second World War. These artists took advantage of new industrial materials and technologies in their struggles with questions about the wreckage of war, history, justice, trauma, and memory.

My time on Harvard’s campus made palpable the rich interplay between the arts and the sciences over the last centuries, and it was quite refreshing to inhabit an academic and institutional space not hampered by disciplinary distinctions.

Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom. Amherst, MA. 

On the way back to Albany from Boston, I stopped in Amherst for a visit to  the Emily Dickinson Museum. I made it in time for an informative hour-long tour and spent some good time looking over some high-quality facsimiles of her herbarium. Like so many American writers in the nineteenth century, Dickinson’s education exposed her to scientific theories, techniques, and instruments that shaped her razor-sharp senses and undoubtedly bolstered her appreciation for the natural world. While outside of her home walking the grounds I was able to make a quick recording of the birds high in the trees. You can take a listen below.