Lives of specimens
Lives of Specimens at San Diego Natural History Museum
Children have a common line of questioning when visiting the displays at the NAT. “Is it real? Are they alive?”
Children have a common line of questioning when visiting the displays at the NAT. “Is it real? Are they alive?” Yes, the 7.4 million specimens that exist in theNAT’s research collections are real, and at one point they were alive. A third question arises: “how did you get them?”
After one year of conversations with biologists, zooarchaeologists, paleontologists, entomologists, ornothologists, educators, artists, and exhibit developers, the project Lives of Specimens emerged. Our goal was to create a sculptural installation and storytelling event that connected the dots for the public about the processes plants, animals, and insects undergo before being poised in glass vitrines, submerged in alcohol, or pinned to paper backing by their human stewards.
Hosted as a free event, Lives of Specimens was staged in two parts at the NAT: on the roof and museum atrium. When people entered the museum, they encountered a live video projection of human hands pinning tiny flies, delicate blue birds, and curling ferns. A crowd of 200 people gathered while biologists prepared study specimens, accompanied by a live clarinetist.
In the second part of the evening, the group filtered to the roof of the museum. A sculptural installation of glowing vitrines of mammals and birds ringed the crowd. Projected onto roof walls was a live VJ collage of footage of the museum storage shelves rarely seen by the public. The evening concluded with a live storytelling: a museum artist, an ornithologist, and a paleontologist shared their relationship to working with a biological record that would last far longer than their own bodies.