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.


Creative Director: Kate Clark
Creative Advising + Production: Robert Rutherford
Video Installation: Lucas Coffin
Video assistants: Doug Hammen, Farshid Bazmandegan
Vitrine Design + Fabrication: Per Kefgen
Video: Ren Ebel, Kate Clark

Judy Carlstrom: preparator
Dr. Michael Wall: preparator
Maria Gonzalez Ceron: preparator
Michiko Ogawa: sho, clarinet, electronics
Judith Hamann: cello
Jim Melli: storyteller
Suzanne Hoyem: storyteller
Robert Rutherford: storyteller

San Diego Art Institute Support
Nick Lesley
Marina Grize
Lissa Corona


Erik Trayvon Benson
Minxuan Lin
Jeszi Mcpeak
Louise Hickman
Abra Olivier
Elizabeth Sutton
TheNAT Support:
Michael Field
Dr. Michael Wall
Suzanne Hoyem
Robert Rutherford
Susan Arter
Dr. Tom Demere
Lauren Marino
Dr. Philip Unitt
Layla Aerne Hains
Bradley Tsalyuk
April Tellez
Judy Gradwohl
Judy Carlstrom
Beth Redmond-Jones
Dr. Bradford Hollingsworth

Rebecca Handelsman
Dr. Jon Rebman
Christopher Plouffe
Jim Berrian
Judy Carlstrom
Katie Amarillas
Alexis McKee
Project Wildlife Support:
Aireo Shipman
Linda King
Justine Matthews
Maria Gonzalez Ceron
Frederick Addesso

Thanks to
Joe Yorty
USD Department of Art and Architecture
Samuel Dunscombe
Susan Myrland
School for Creative Careers
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