Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2013

The Art of Science, Remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria (2013), by John Kean

The Art of ScienceThere is so much to love about the web these days, especially the community of friends we make and the news we share about interesting things.  But one of the things I love most of all is the virtual exhibition, that enables us to view artworks and historical artefacts of all sorts online, even when the exhibition is overseas or faraway interstate.

One such exhibition is Museum Victoria’s travelling exhibition, The Art of Science.  These are the forthcoming remaining dates, (and I am kicking myself for not getting to Ballarat when it was showing there).

But we can still see some of the exhibits digitally.  Take a look at this brilliant page showing butterfly eggs – eggs so small that no biologist could have viewed them in such detail without the wonders of digital technology.  When you click on these beautiful eggs In their fascinating shapes – they morph into the butterfly.

The website includes samples of the artworks in these categories:

  • Discovering new worlds
  • Exploring Australia
  • The Golden Age of Scientific Illustration
  • Scientific Art in Victoria
  • Science and Art in a New Nation
  • Scientific Illustration in the Contemporary Museum
  • Butterflies in Victoria, and
  • Teacher notes

But of course the website doesn’t have everything.  Which is where the book comes into its own.   It is a big beautiful book with 204 pages of stunning full colour illustrations, mostly full size.  The pictures are so exquisite, and the production values of this book are so good, it is like having an art gallery in your own home.

For scientists, of course, scientific illustrations are more than just gorgeous pictures.  Like the botanical illustrations I’ve featured before (A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald, by Penny Olsen and Collecting Ladies, Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists by the same author), these works of art serve a specific purpose.  As the Foreword by Dr Robin Hirst explains about commissioning paleo-artist Peter Trusler to create a reconstruction of a newly discovered fossil of Palorchestes azael, an extinct marsupial herbivore,

It would have been easier to take a photograph of the Palorchestes skull to illustrate it.  However, skilled scientific artists can see more than a camera, and a carefully prepared illustration cane be far more useful than a simple photograph.  Artists are able to interpret an animal’s detailed morphology, often cleverly rendering complex three-dimensional structures into two-dimensional illustrations, and they can highlight particular distinguishing features of use to science.  In the course of preparing highly detailed and accurate scientific works, they can also produce fine and valuable pieces of art.  (p. vi)

Melbourne’s Museum, founded in 1854 as the National Museum of Victoria, has a large collection of these artworks, and John Kean is their curator.   With staff support, he has selected the best of these from rare scientific reference books and unique original artworks for this book.  We owe so much to the foresight of founding curator William Blandowski who set up the library of reference books, which includes a set of John Gould’s famous Birds of Australia (1840-1848), and to his successor Professor Frederick McCoy who overspent his budget many a time in pursuit of books that he knew it was important to acquire.  (Thank goodness we didn’t have people carrying on about deficits then!)  (BTW Did you know you can view Birds of Australia digitally, thanks to the National Library’s Digital Collection? How lucky we are to live in the digital era!)

What fascinated me about this collection was the discovery that while of course artists are still beavering away with traditional art materials, they are also using digital micro-photography (of the type used to illustrate the butterfly eggs above). They are also experimenting with computer graphics packages for illustrations. Visitors to museums will mostly never see these items because they are stored away in climate-controlled storage, accessible only to researchers.  But the historical collection shows that these illustrations show change over time, as the artists began to include more detail including creatures at rest and in flight, as immature and adult specimens, with breeding and non-breeding plumage, and of course male and female.

School of Athens

School of Athens by Rafael, featuring philosopher-naturalists Aristotle and Plato (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Tall Grass (Durer)Human interest in these creatures goes back a long way as can be seen on rock art images of a Thylacine in Arnhem Land – and if you saw the ABC doco First Footprints you will still be in awe at the diversity of these ancient artworks, older than anything comparable around the world.  (And if you missed it, you can buy the DVD from 27 August at the ABC shop.)  There’s a fascinating summary of the contributions of Renaissance artists Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci and Albercht Dürer using the representation of space to illustrate advances in science.  Our knowledge of anatomy owes a huge debt to Da Vinci, while Dürer’s painting Tall Grass (1503) shows every blade of grass.  There’s a stunning picture of Albertus Seba standing proudly in front of his collection, a collection so impressive that Carl Linnaeus visited Seba twice in 1735, in the same year that he introduced his Linnaean system of classifications for all living things.

This chapter and the next about the development of natural history and scientific illustrations were my favourites in the book.  I love the old pictures, including the bizarre ones which owe more to the artist’s imagination than his powers of observation.  The picture of a ‘bold snake’ by an unknown artist in about 1734 featuring seven heads is rather peculiar, but IMO it captures both the sense of excitement and the curiosity that people felt about the discoveries from the new world.  But of course the illustrations from Australia’s earliest period convey that sense of wonder too: slightly misshapen versions of the wombat and the platypus, You feel as if you can almost feel the fur on Jacques Werner’s paintings of the possum and the koala, and the reproductions of John Gould’s paintings are exquisite.  (Yes, I know I’ve overused that word.  I can’t help it).

What amazes me most is the way these artists were able to capture these creatures even though they must have been in motion most of the time.  Birds, insects, marsupials whizzing around in their habitats seem to have presented no obstacle to the talent of these artists,   At the same time I was enchanted to see pictures by Vernon Hayles, who was the artist who produced  visualisations of extinct reptiles which were part of the exhibits that were in the ‘old’ museum before its move to new premises in Exhibition St.  These displays – of all kinds of creatures in their habitats – are imaginative and fascinating, especially when you look at them in detail.   But I also like the visualisation of our extinct megafauna – I have always been fascinated by the story of these creatures and the pictures by Frank Knight are stunning.

I have never made any secret of the fact that I much preferred the ‘old’ museum, which I visited many, many times as a child.  Over the years I also took hundreds of students there and they loved it too, because it had more comprehensive displays and we loved messing around with the machinery that operated ships and gold mines and we liked being able to see the scientific progression of ideas.  The new museum is so big that it exhausts little legs before they even get inside it.  But I recognise that the ‘old’ museum had outgrown its space, and it was essential that these collections be stored properly because at the end of the day a museum’s purpose is more about  supporting scientific  enquiry than providing a u-beaut place for kids to get interested in science.

The Art of Science is a super book.  Highly recommended.

Author: John Kean
Title: The Art of Science, Remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria
Publisher: Museum Victoria 2013
ISBN: 978-1-921833-25-0
Source: Review copy courtesy of Museum Victoria via Scott Eathorne at Quikmark Media.


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  1. […] There is also associated book, reviewed very positively here. […]


  2. […] The Art of Science, remarkable natural history illustrations from Museum Victoria, by John Kean […]


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