Sunday, 2 March 2014

Scientific and Mathematical Teaching Models at the Whipple Museum (Cambridge, Feb 2014)

Whilst trudging through Cambridge the other day, we stumbled across the small but very entertaining Whipple Museum in Cambridge University, which starts with a very interesting glass sculpture cabinet near the front entrance. We had made a few abortive attempts into some museums in Cambridge, but the highlight for me was most certainly the Whipple, where I was attracted by the botanical models, and then the intricate glass sculptures of fungi (some quite recognizable for any wannabe-mycologists), which for me takes it to a whole new level.

Botanical Teaching Models

Since coming to the Royal College of Art I've had the fortune to attend anatomy and facial reconstruction classes, which to be honest, previously seemed to me to be a kind of moot cause, since I was not inherently interested in being able to accurately replicate the shape, color or form of something from nature (unless it was just for FUN).

I don't consider myself that sort of artist and I certainly have approached traditional forms like drawing, painting and sculpture as nothing more than a dilettante or hobbyist. (Granted, it doesn't mean I don't have the ability to apply myself properly with a little effort, but it is not something I would imagine myself devoting my life like the obsessive artist in Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece. I am not so much concerned with colour, shadow, accuracy of hand, and things like that.

In fact, I have always thought it might be better bypassing this entire step of studying natural forms (biology, botany) and going straight to the point where one tries to make up something entirely new. But in the end, in trying to do my recent Kensington Gall project, it was obvious that in order to get to that point where I can make up something completely new, then I'll still need to study all the other steps along the way in detail. Perhaps to be able to learn it all so that I can unlearn it and rebuild it anew?

Fungi Models

And one very funny thing is that if there is one thing I have learnt from attending a few talks at Imperial, it is that when it comes down to it, even the most complicated science can be explained in simple words. I suppose a lot of complicated subjects are very comprehensible when presented in the right way. Like if it is presented through the right image. At a talk I attended given by a Neuropsychopharmacologist, the ability to map the brain was critical to his job as it was from visualizing the brain that one was able to tell which drugs affected which portion of the brain, and also enabling one to test which portions of the brain are active when one is doing a particular activity. However, at the crux of it, it was still a matter of scanning, making an image of the brain, and testing out drugs by monitoring what effects the drugs had on the resultant images that were produced.

Whilst the technical portion of medical imaging is certainly very impressive, when I think about it, a fair bit of "art-science" collaborations currently out there don't really seem to go beyond that level of representation or realism. I was not aware of this until this year, but there are even specialised areas such as scientific illustration and science communication - a whole area and perhaps even a profession for people completely dedicated to deciding on each and every delicate nuance to how science is represented or communicated to others!

An artistically rendered book consisting of cross-sections of a human heart might be the epitome the meeting of art and science to some, but for me that is at best mundane, or even boring, largely because it does not challenge the boundaries of perception or accepted notions, which I imagine to be the point of making art. If art does not pierce, does not challenge, does not say things, then why make art? For ornamental purposes? It is much less interesting than someone modeling a heart and launching off into an almost ridiculous premise like, "what if humans lived in zero gravity for a long time - what would the shape of human hearts evolve over time?" Now that would have been much more interesting.

A whole section about Microscopes!


Beautiful wax models of starfish embryos

I do delight in going back to school and spending the time going to these museums and lectures (especially in London and the vicinity) and feeling like there is still a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from the simplest, old model used from decades ago. An instructive model says so much not only about the actual topic but also the approaches to teaching and how they intended to present things to students. I was so delighted to see all these botanical models. It reminded me of a book I had read from the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens - the first gallery dedicated solely to botanical art - and staggering to think of the labour and the attempts to accumulate and represent the knowledge that today we take for granted. So much of this is so amazing already, and so beautiful that I can scarcely see myself being able to reproduce such sculptures and images with such finesse. So in a way I think a better contribution I could make to the area would be to extend the understanding of it through some intelligent speculation.

Strange lego model section for english astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon who were apparently surveying the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland and at the time undertaking gravitational experiments with a pendulum from London. Note inexplicable hordes of lego indians loitering in the background.

(I actually grew up with a very similar set of Lego characters! I had the schoolroom lego, the country western lego, the firetruck lego, and the ambulance/civil defence disaster lego set. Best part was when you combined all of the sets and mashed up all the school children and indians on horseback together with the scene of a disaster with all the emergency services and hazmat crew...)

This is one of my personal favourites.

Mathematical amusements

Crafty knitted Interpentrating Surfaces from the 19th century. Knitted by Alexander Crum Brown, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh!

Model of a cell

Horses' teeth

Anatomical Model of a Human

Anatomical Model of a Silkworm

This was a review in their guestbook from a satisfied visitor. (I would have said the same)

1 comment:

  1. Ah the Pilobolus. A wonderful fungus:
    A wonderful museum indeed! Mason&Dixon is also a great Pynchon novel, but I managed to read only two chapters, then I got distracted by Gravity's Rainbow.