Can you remember where it was you lost your childhood? Perhaps it was just past the second star to the right, or somewhere between the lamp-post and Cair Paravel. No matter where it was, or what the age when the spark of wonder started to fade, a trip to The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University just might be your chance to re-light it.
I was treated to such a transformation at Bug Fest in August, where I joined crowds of parents and their children as they gaped – one part fear, one part fascination – at bugs on display in cases, bugs set to race through mazes, bugs creating mini-masterpieces with fingerpaint and canvas. It was there that I discovered the Academy’s secret. More than just a haven for dinosaur bones and creature displays, the museum exists as a living, breathing piece of artwork and interactive discovery.
Dioramas of animals frozen in terrains and in time stand as encased testaments to the hours upon hours of work that the Academy’s researchers put into taking painstaking measurements, experimenting with and inventing techniques to accurately reflect their living studies. Floor-upon-floor of behind-the-scenes laboratories provide the working space for a staff of scientists whose stories involve just the right mix of passion and danger – braving the unknown so that a child might look with newly-awakened curiosity upon specimens aquatic, aerial, and amphibian. And now, re-imagined exhibitions incorporate science with the art it inspires, such as the current show Pinned: Insect Art, Insect Science, on display through January 11. An interview with Director of Exhibits Jennifer Sontchi reveals the history and programming plans for the future of the Academy.
Can you tell me a bit about the Academy’s background?
The Academy was founded in 1812 by seven gentlemen scholars, they came together to share their collections. That’s not unusual – it was sort of a leisure activity at the time. The museum wasn’t open to the public, it wasn’t an educational facility, it was a scientific institution. The goal in the old days was to have one of everything – you might have a specialization, like shells – but you wanted to get one of everything so that you would have them all as a collection. This is 200 years of history in a nutshell, but then Darwin came along and changed everything because Darwin’s writings basically said it’s not about having one of everything, it’s about looking at populations. So the museum went from wanting one of everything to wanting lots and lots and lots of each species. And so the whole idea of collecting changed, and we started to take specimens and put them in drawers and rows, and we have here 18 million specimens in collections spaces for study for scientists around the world, and it’s like a library of life. Very little of what you see in museums is actually on display.
I was actually just talking to an art handler at the art museum, and he was telling me about their underground facilities, and that they have so much art that they’re a lending museum. You don’t think about that.
There’s a lot more action behind the walls than you might think. The idea of what a museum is and what it’s for has changed tremendously. Now we see ourselves as an institution that’s here to spark interest in the natural world. The idea isn’t to tell you everything about it, it’s to get you excited about it and inspired to learn more on your own.
Taking ownership of something so that you can go out and contribute.
That’s right. So you can go out and say, ‘Hey did you know that nature is so cool? And here’s why.’ And we also have many, many active scientists here.
Yes, I was surprised to find that on the website.
People don’t know and we tell them and they’re stunned. I keep thinking it would be fun to have a display, ‘Where in the world are our scientists?’ Our paleontologist goes to Nunavut, Alaska, and it’s dangerous. We have scientists in rivers and streams all over the world, and they have incredible stories. The purpose of the museum has changed, but at the end of the day we’re here because we offer Philadelphians contact to a place that a lot of them have never seen. Even with television and movies, you can’t stand nose to nose with a moose at the zoo like you can here. And we have artists that will come and sketch because it’s perfect, they don’t move. So we serve a lot of different purposes in the community that way. Not just as field trips, but also as a source of inspiration for artists in the area, which we’re very proud of.
Have you yourself gone out on any adventures?
Yes, lots. I’ve been very lucky. I started out in paleontology, so I was a fossil preparator for about a decade. So I got to go out into the field and look for fossils and bones and I found lots and lots and brought them back, and we would take care of them in the lab and get them into the collections. I made a big shift from doing that kind of field work, because I was always more of a creative person than a scientist.
What is it about the 7 year old mind? I think that’s a pretty big turning point for people, where they have that big memory of going to museums, and seeing something that challenged everything they understood, whether it was seeing this 40 foot long dinosaur, or a diorama, and that’s the age that people really start to turn towards science I think. But we definitely have a lot of good things for adults, more than they might guess.
All the parents bring their kids here and we all know that’s an excuse to come themselves.
We’ve gotten a little better at evening events. We have the Philly Geek Awards, and Mega Bad Movie Nights, really using our space as maximally as possible, and trying to include all the ages and groups.
Now can you tell me more specifically about the art exhibitions, how long you’ve been incorporating them into the museum itself?
We’ve been doing that about 7 years. We’ve talked about art of science, and what it’s goals are, and what we’re trying to accomplish. We have this big hallway, and it was very underused. And we really just wanted to give the older set a little treat. It’s really struck a chord with a lot of people. We’ve got a lot of support from surrounding communities about this, and we’re really excited about having it. Pinned is perfect in many ways. One side is representing insect art, and the other side is representing insect science, and you look from one side to the other and you can see how the way that we preserve insects to study them inspires people. Insects themselves are so stunning and fascinating, they’re frightening and bizarre. The whole thing is kind of this control of nature, and yet this display of beautiful wing patterns, and their lovely scales. There are these beautiful collages, and mosaics of shiny beetle wings, and butterflies with their wings open. The ideal art and science gallery will have a component that reflects the Academy. You can’t imagine how many times we have some incredible artists on staff, because there’s a similar sort of brain going on there. Dr. Daniel Otte, he’s one of the foremost cricket experts in the world, and he’s an absolutely stunning artist.
We try to focus on local artists if we can. The artists are really open to feedback, and we invite them to opening night, and they get to talk with people and answer questions. Every artist has been really generous in letting us design it how we want.
We have a couple hundred submissions from people. It’s hard because how do you pick an exhibit? Do you pick the pieces that move you or the pieces that will move your visitors or the things that everybody likes the best, or the ones that are the prettiest or the ones that are the deepest or the most meaningful? And it’s inspired a lot of conversations in the staff.
We have a lot of artist members who go out and take inspiration from the natural world – the murmurations of birds, the patterns in water and wood. Do you think there’s a way for artists to train their eyes to find the art in nature?
You’re either inspired by it or you’re not. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve seen artists go through different explorations of media. If I was going to give a young artist any advice I’d say just open your eyes and quiet yourself and listen and look.
I think that’s good life advice in general. You were talking about the dioramas earlier, and I was wondering if you think that art can work as a bridge towards the more uncomfortable topics of science.
I think the whole museum is there for that. We’re careful when we go into things like evolution or fracking or water science. We put out there what we know based on observation and hypothesis and testing. We’re pretty serious about not spouting our opinions – we put down what we know. Most people aren’t closed doors, they are open minded, and we get a lot of encouragement for more. I don’t know if it’s art that’s a bridge, it’s more anything exciting or beautiful that we can use to illuminate a story in nature. Or something gross or icky or fun. Like Bug Fest. People come and they’re terrified but they come anyway, because it’s fun to be afraid, it’s fun to not be sure, it’s fun to not know why it’s slimy.
That’s the best thing about Members’ Night. All the scientists, they bring out their boats, and all the equipment they use, and they open their doors to the labs, and they’ll bring out all the eels and all the crazy animals that we’ve got, that people never get to see. And they’re so passionate, and they love to get to show people what they’ve been doing, and it’s the greatest perk of membership that we offer.
I was impressed by the idea behind the bug Picassos. The kids were so excited to look at maggots and roaches. Who would have thought? They were crowding around.
We’ve decided to change an exhibit in our hands-on room. We have an exhibit called Outside In, and we’re changing out the pond area. We love an authentic experience, but the water is hard to keep up. So we decided to decommission our real water pond and change it to something else. We’re going to put a worm farm.
Will kids be able to touch them?
I would dive right in.
Some kids not so much, but they’ll still want to go at a distance and check it out.
And watch their friends play.
Watch their friends with disgust.
And secret envy.
Exactly. We try to push all those buttons as much as we can. Because it’s so much fun. We walk around all the time thinking that we’re outside of nature. And we’re not. There’s so much removal. So we love to be able to offer that here. One of the most popular exhibits is the sandbox.
My little sister – she was about four or five years old – we took her here and we lost her to the sandbox.
There’s a lot of kids who have never been to the ocean and have never played in sand before or aren’t allowed to. And we’re like, ‘Go ahead, have fun, look for the seashells, get dirty.’
It’s the best part of being a kid.
And we want the kids to feel comfortable here. We’re here for them, for their families, for scientists, for artists, too.
When I was here for Bug Fest, I was talking to one of your entomologists about mimicry among flies and tropical beetles. And I was blown away by the incredible patterns.
And the competition for resources and food. And how they’ll copy each other. Start reading about poison. We had an orchid show. Orchids are nuts. You can’t believe the evolutionary features these things have. Some of them have evolved to look like the genitalia of the insect they’re trying to attract. So the male or female will come to the flower to mate with it, and they’ll get pollinated by it. It’s all completely unconscious, but that’s how evolution works. You can’t make this stuff up. Whenever we get a chance to inspire people to pick up a book and learn more, we try. People come to look at the stunning beautiful flowers, but we’re here to give them a little something else.
So that’s a good reason to come back here.
For us it’s also just really fun. And people like to tell us what they know, and that’s also great. They’re dying to share it with us because we would understand. We have a space called Science Live, and we use it in a lot of different ways, but one of the ways we’ve used it in the past is, we would have real scientists there working on a project they were doing. People are usually a little nervous at first. But here are real scientists, real people, you can be a scientist too. One time we were doing this bird skinning, and you take out the insides and put it around a form, and put it in a stadium drawer. A little girl looks up at the ornithologist and says, ‘Does your daddy know what you’re doing?’ She was not sure at all that this was okay.
For an artist coming into the museum, what is the best spot for them to get further inspiration?
It entirely depends on their interests. Our museum is split into areas. I’ve seen artists drawing people looking at the mammals, I’ve seen them photographing reflections of people looking at the mammals, creating dioramas themselves. And you can see the meaning there. So I guess it all depends on what your goal is. I’m here, you can ask for me and talk to me, and we’ll walk around and answer your questions about dioramas. We’re happy to help.