Loving Observation: Photographing the Science Museum

January 17th, 2011 | Meera

The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.

There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.

I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.

Some Amazing Thing (Paper Fish)
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.

Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.

I bring my camera, of course.

You might not want to look too close
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.

Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.

Together Forever
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.

One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.

Waiting to Walk
Photo taken at the MIT Museum.

It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.

White Cross Violet Ray
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.

That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.

maniraptor tickles your spine
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

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