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Before our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, I conducted the following short interview with Jo Wilbraham, an algae and seaweed specialist:

GA: Can you tell me about your fieldwork methods when collecting seaweeds?

JW: When searching the intertidal zone, we aim to spot all distinct species and collect samples where necessary for identification/voucher preservation. It is important to get an eye in for spotting seaweeds that look different, which probably are (but not necessarily) different species. Observation is the key to finding and recording species diversity. Photos of species in situ and the general habitat are very useful as are notes on observations in the field etc.

 

GA: What do you do with the specimen after it has been collected?

JW: We Identify the samples. We tend to take a microscope and ID book to the field station with us if possible, and work on identifications in the evening before pressing the specimens.

 

GA: Can drawing help to tune the scientist’s observation, benefiting their scientific fieldwork?

JW: Observation is critical in fieldwork as you are trying to visually pick out the species diversity of the group you are looking for against a lot of background ‘noise’. This is where drawing is very helpful and delineation can show important morphology and omit surrounding details. We never have much time as we also have to press the specimens/change wet drying papers etc. So there is no time to do drawings or extensive notes.

 

Shared methods

 

During the trip, the field methods of exploring, observing and collecting were shared by the artist and the scientist. It is the motivations, selection criteria and outcomes of the fieldwork that differentiate what we do.

 

method-700.jpg

Diagram showing where artistic and scientific fieldwork methods converge and diverge.

 

As an artist, I identify the morphological subset of forms within the specimen and then re-order and re-classify the specimen through drawing methods. I spend time with the specimen in it’s three-dimensional form, observing and drawing, building on my previous drawing and observational practice. The scientists take lots of photos of the specimen and then process it for the Museum collections, pressing plants into two dimensional forms and pinning insect material.

 

Although observation is still important in many scientific practices, the motivation behind observation in fieldwork is to identify the specimen (to name) and observational drawing is rarely prioritised in contemporary practice. I do not want to name the specimen, but to creatively explore it’s morphology through drawing methods in order to expand what and how I can know about the object.

 

Drawing the ‘uncollected’ fieldwork specimens

 

The collected fieldwork specimens are immediately pressed; their three-dimensional form squeezed into two dimensions before anyone - scientist or artist - has observed them in detail. It becomes clear that there is no time on fieldwork for the scientists to draw the collected specimens, or even for an artist to draw them!

 

But I am still determined to draw what the scientists have collected, and I decide to ask  if I can draw the specimens that  will not be taken back to the Museum - ‘the collected, uncollected’. These specimens, which have been brought together by the scientists, create a very unusual species combination at the field station. They are superfluous to the needs of this field trip, and would otherwise be thrown away as rubbish, so drawing them transforms them into a different material, it is a nice form of recycling!

 

etching-process700.jpgDrawing leftover specimens: the etching process.

 

I draw the specimens together to create a micro environment, where the work of the scientists and the artist combine. As an artist I am interested in how these specimens, which have been valued and subsequently devalued, can be re-valued and re-known through drawing practice; a practice which scientists are valuing less and less in contemporary scientific work.

 

finished-etching.jpgA scan of the finished etching: 'Collected, uncollected'.

 

I have explored these ideas further in my recent research paper ‘Endangered: A study of the declining practice of morphological drawing in zoological taxonomy’ (Published by Leonardo Journal, MIT Press 2013). I focus on the established drawing practice of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum in relation to my own drawing practice, adapted to the camera lucida device.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At the field station on St. Mary’s I find Martin Honey, an entomologist who works on lepidoptera. He shows me his moth trap, which is a circular vessel filled with empty egg cartons with a glass lid and a large light bulb in the middle (in other words, it looks a bit like a big rice cooker with a light bulb sticking out of the top!).

moth-trap-600.jpgMartin's moth trap in a shady area at the field station. Awaiting winged nighttime visitors.

 

Martin tells me that when he switches on the bulb - which is mainly ultraviolet light - at night, the moths are attracted and once inside, they can rest on the egg cartons until he collects them in the morning. Martin keeps the trap in shady places so that the moths don’t get too hot in the sunlight. He shows me a few specimens that are inside and says he has just freed quite a lot so if I come back tomorrow he will keep some for me to draw.

 

Martin shows me a specimen that he has put to sleep with a special liquid. The moth’s wings are closed, and I ask how the wings are kept open as we see in the museum collections. This proves to be a good question...

 

In the field work room we find Martin's microscope and a few dozen moth specimens. He tells me that the wings are set by hand, and proceeds to show me how this is done. He carefully takes a moth specimen with forceps and places it under the microscope alongside some pins, which are so small they are almost invisible!

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Moth specimens and pins at the microscope, ready for setting.

 

Martin looks down the microscope, controls the instrumental pins with forceps and begins to slowly open the wings… he arranges the legs at 45 degrees and makes sure the antennae are forward, then slowing impresses the pins into the foam to hold the posture that he has now created for the moth specimen. He makes it look effortless and I am inspired, it is really quite an artful practice.

 

Martin tells me he learned to set moth wings by hand at the Museum, and I am intrigued to hear more:

GA: Are all entomologists at the NHM expected to do this in their job description?

MH: Some people just cannot do this, it requires too much dexterity.

GA: So some scientists can do it, but are people employed just to do the setting, and in the past, has the NHM employed setting staff?

MH: Yes - there used to be a special room called the setting room in the NHM, and specially trained people just did that work. Now there are specialist setters in Prague, they are not scientists but mostly amateur entomologists. I may send the larger specimens there depending on their number and I might do some setting work when I retire, and challenge the Prague group!

live-specimens-550.jpgMartin gives me four live moth specimens found on St.Mary's. I will draw them and let them go afterwards.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.