You’re drawn to the vividly colored image from across a room, and you need to move closer to understand what you’re seeing. Just like that, The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature has pulled you into an exhibit that feels more like an art gallery than science education.
The exhibit, dubbed “Picturing Science,” is a collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and it allows visitors to see the many ways that the application of light and technology have changed what scientists know about the world.
Visitors will learn about scientific imaging technologies, such as electron microscopes and CT scanning, and they’ll see how researchers use those developments to shed light on everything from chemical composition of meteorites to the dental structure of a long-extinct rodent.
Hillary Spencer, CEO of The Bishop, said that most of the displays arrived on loan intact from the Museum of Natural History, but the curators in Bradenton have utilized their own artifacts and equipment to add even more heft to the exhibit.
“They’re a really great partner,” says Spencer, who previously worked at the Museum of Natural History. “It’s been really easy to get these assets from them and really easy to get feedback on what we’re doing. We also get great planetarium content from them too.
"They really encourage us to expand the story so it fits our audience. We’re encouraged and allowed to add objects, to add our own research, to add our own collections to the research they do.”
The exhibit, which will be on display for the rest of the year, is the opening salvo in The Bishop's "Year of Light," a themed series of collections designed to celebrate the institution's 75th anniversary.
When you enter the room, you're immediately greeted by a number of brightly colored displays. There's a prominent one displaying the path of a fish's circulatory system and another one showing enlarged images of scorpions. As you make your way around the room, you'll learn about biofluorescence in corals and the microscopic features of insect anatomy.
"You can come in and enjoy it for the beautiful images, and you see the merging of science and art," says curator Tiffany LaBritt. "But if you want to take it to the next level and learn something deeper and understand the scientific side of it, you can do that too."
LaBritt gestures to a display of a knife inside a leather sheath that has shrunk over time. The knife cannot be taken out, she says, without damaging the sheath. So what did scientists do? They took a CT scan of it that allowed them to examine it without breaking it, and that technology allowed them to reveal an intricate pattern of Arabic lettering on the edge of the blade.
"You protect the integrity of the object," she says. "But you still find out what’s going on with it and see some of those extra details that might have been lost to time. Otherwise, you may have had to damage the object."
The same thing is true of meteorites and fossils. Prior to advancements in technology, you probably wouldn't be able to analyze the layered chemical composition of a meteorite without slicing it open. Now, thanks to the advent of an electron microprobe, scientists can agitate the atoms on the surface of the space rocks and learn exactly what they're made of inside.
Now consider the case of an extinct primate's brain. The exhibit includes an image of a two-inch skull of a primate that existed about 20 million years ago, and to this day it's the only one of its kind ever discovered. And because the researchers did not want to damage the object, they used a CT scanner to peer inside and learn about the anatomy of an animal that has been gone a long time.
"You can kind of judge from the outside of a skull — especially a primate — the size of their brain," says LaBritt. "But in order to really understand the size of it, in the past you’d have to use destructive methods to basically cut the skull open.
"With something rare like this extinct animal, you don’t want to have to do that. So they were able to CT scan it, which allowed them to see the size of the braincase and also figure out how well they were able to walk bipedally."
Think about that for a second. Let that marinate. Just by taking a scan of a 2-inch skull, scientists were able to determine how well a tiny monkey that hasn't existed for 20 million years was able to walk on its own two feet.
The exhibits also show the inner skeleton of an armadillo lizard, which is known for rolling itself into a ball as a method of protection from predators. And there's another display that shows the minute differences in anatomy between yellowjackets, hornets and wasps. On yet another wall, there's a stark and arresting image of an extinct rodent's teeth produced by scanning electron microscopy.
You're peering into the mouth of a mouse that's been gone for 16 million years, but it looks more like a rocky outcropping.
"Once you get that level of detail, you go 'whoa,'" says LaBritt of the entrancing black-and-white imagery. "It’s one of those images where if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might think it was an alien landscape."
On and on the exhibit goes, alternating between studies of anatomy and discoveries from outer space.
Spencer says The Bishop is working toward a pair of complimentary goals; the museum wants to be a thought leader in research and science education, but it also just wants to be a fun place where people can have a nice day with their family.
The Year of Light will continue in April with a photography exhibit by local photographer Scott Odell entitled "Illumination: Seeing Beyond the Shell," and the planetarium anticipates hosting infrared images from NASA's recently launched James Webb Space Telescope this fall. And thanks to the partnership with the Museum of Natural History, "Picturing Science" kicks it all off.
"I think we all agreed this was a great place to start, and we could use the stories that are told in this gallery to help inform the stories we tell to our tours and to our field trips," says Spencer. "We’ll have eight different installations throughout the year using light in one capacity or another for joy and discovery and wonder, but also just to get people to look at our collections in new ways."