What if Vassar was rated not by acceptance rate or by endowment, not by a private company like Forbes or by students like on collegeprowler.com, but by the government, on how much its graduates earned after graduation? As seniors hunt for jobs, many might be bemoaning the choice of an obscure major. What is the investment in college really worth? Opportunity might sum up the reasons quite nicely. One opportunity provided by the Biology Department this week is an exhibit called “Spark!” in the college center, which provides a unique blend of arts and science.
In 2014, the Obama administration called for just such a rating of 7,000 colleges and universities. And this past week the New York Times ran an article titled, “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding” in which it outlined the rising effort in America to “nudge students away from the humanities and toward more friendly subjects.” The article noted, “Most of the top earners in the liberal arts end up matching only the bottom earners in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” These numbers are derived from across all colleges in the United States, and not from highly selective private liberal arts institutions like Vassar, yet all the same, the statistic speaks volumes about the college’s recent change of direction towards science.
While the liberal arts are no doubt alive and well here at Vassar, these trends are not beyond the sphere of the students. Right next to the Retreat, the new “Spark! A Feel for Science Exhibit” is appearing in the Palmer Gallery, replacing the traditional arts exhibitions on display in the space. The exhibit, which is the latest in a series celebrating the new Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, might be emblematic of the response to these data-based criticisms of the financial utility of a liberal arts curriculum.
When I asked one such senior about the exhibit, he said, “It’s a sign of the times that they are using an art space for a science exhibit.”
The curator of the exhibit, Richard Jones, a member of the Earth Sciences Department and a director of the A. Scott Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History, would have to disagree. In response to these comments, he laughed. For Jones, the concern for this apparent loss of artistic space did not have grounds: “To say the show is only science in an art space would be like saying Andy Warhol shouldn’t use packaging in his artwork.”
While there are no Warhols in the Palmer Gallery this month, the pieces on display in the Palmer Gallery are certainly worth the visit. The gallery is largely artifacts recovered from the buildings that have recently been renovated on campus. Jones credited science’s rich physical culture for the multitude of interesting items he was able to recover, which come almost entirely from before 1930. The oldest piece is a serpentine horn, found in the “treasure room” in Skinner Hall, that he estimated could be as much as 500 years old.
The space is full of pieces, but not cluttered. Upon entering the gallery, you are greeted by a nearly life-size mannequin that displays the anatomy of the human body, a piece that Jones said was one of his first inspirations for the show. On the back wall, spaced out evenly across the exhibit are several “moon prints.” These black-and-white posters, which the curator also considers essential to the exhibit, show detailed photographs of moon’s surface and were once used as teaching devices.
One of the most eye-catching items in the show is the “Chart of Electromagnetic Radiations.” Covering almost an entire section of the show, the piece details the different forms of radiations in order of wavelengths through odd and fascinating comics, illustrated with a retro aesthetic and garish colors.
Not everything in the exhibit is old though; at the gallery, contemporary research is shown to have a streak of modern art. Jones said that what he tried to convey in the exhibit is the way in which the scientist and artist both learn a skill, which they can use to express their curiosity or intuition. He wanted to capture the interface of the scientist, the craft of research and its methods and the resulting product.
One such piece on display was the Winogradsky Column from the lab of Associate Professor of Biology David J. Esteban in the biology department. The display is made up of an ever-changing colony of bacteria, cyanobacteria and algae, which creates patterns and shapes in complex shades of red, brown, gray and green. A lamp shines directly on the incubating community, powering the growth and movement of the piece, which is watched by a time-lapse camera whose photos will be used for both science and art.
Another such item is Assistant Professor of Biology Meghan Gall’s research on cowbirds, a creature that lays its eggs in other bird’s nests, tricking these birds to raise their offspring. The exhibit displays glass slides of the birds collected from the Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Geography, Physics and Art History departments. Complimenting the slides are recordings of bird calls and an example of a trap that is used in the research.
Next to each display is a plaque with dialogue that illuminates each researcher’s story of how they became interested in their topic. Jones used the dialogues to add depth and nuance to the viewer’s understanding of the art. Each story tries to illuminate how creative thinking, non-scientific inspirations, dreaming, tool-creation, arts, literature and music have had their influences on each researcher’s work.
The aesthetic beauty of the items on display at the show in many ways mirrors the beauty of the building they celebrate. The incredible union of form and function in the chemistry devices on display is just as impressive as the curving glass windows and walls of the Bridge Building. Jones hopes that his show and the new building can work together to “lessen the divide between arts and sciences,” both ideologically and in practice on this campus.
In the coming months, the old Mudd chemistry building, not much loved by this campus, will come down, marking a new era for the sciences at Vassar. However, you need not look much further than the Palmer gallery this week to see that, while renewing its commitment to research, the College is still a place for the liberal arts to thrive. Jones has done well to show that the line between the disciplines is drawn largely by the ground between each department’s building.