Science embraces aesthetics in student herbarium exhibit

Photos courtesy of Alison Carranza ʼ23 and Garrett Goodrich ʼ23

A new garden of sorts has sprouted on the second floor of the College Center. Posters hanging from the walls capture the spiraling branches, ornate leaves and bundles of flower buds of various plant samples that Alison Carranza ʼ23 [Disclaimer: Carranza is the Social Media Editor at The Miscellany News] and Garrett Goodrich ʼ23 collected as part of their research on the aesthetics of various botanical specimens. Last Wednesday, Dec. 1, they celebrated the opening of their exhibition, “Art and Science of Herbarium Specimens,” opening up their discussion about the entanglement of botany with art to the Vassar community. 

The curation stemmed from Carranza and Goodrich’s research for a fellowship at Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), in which they helped digitize collections of botanical specimens in the area. “We were travelling around the Hudson Valley and part of Connecticut for our URSI project this summer taking photographs of herbarium specimens when we noticed how beautiful some of the specimens were,” Carranza recounted in an email correspondence.

This observation sparked a more in-depth discussion about the relationship between botany and art, and the curation blossomed from there, blooming into the current exhibit housed in the College Center. The collection features many visually appealing specimens, from leafy ferns and bulbous orchids to three-leaved trilliums and vines with clusters of seeds, little yellow arids popping out against the red insides. Each specimen has its own backstory, with distinct yet valuable connections to the broader field of botany. While some reveal ever-evolving change within certain species, others provide fruitful insight into the effects of climate change on plant morphology. Overarching all of this botanical diversity, the intersection between aesthetics and science pervades each of the 12 pieces selected for the exhibit, a small collection that represents a much more expansive list of 200 specimens.

In preparation for the exhibit, Carranza and Goodrich surveyed people with experience in either art or botanical science. They asked respondents to rank a selection of 15 images from their research, as well as designate the most “visually appealing” of the collection and which one had “the highest potential to contribute to botany.” They printed the 12 specimens that evoked the most generative responses.

“Scientists were a key part of our understanding of each individual specimen, while those who work more closely with art shaped the form and framing of this exhibition,” Carranza and Goodrich wrote in a poster that detailed the results of their survey and the application of their findings to the actual exhibit. “The generosity of the artists’ comments helped to extend this conversation more accurately into the intersection of art and science.”

Both Carranza and Goodrich noted the particular importance of Figure 10, a type of grapefern more specifically called Botrychium dissectum. As Carranza elaborated, “It has an interesting history because we had imaged it at the Daniel Smiley Research Center at Mohonk and Daniel Smiley’s wife, Ruth, had initially collected it and used it as house decor by framing it and hanging it on the walls of their house.” 

Mounted on a background of cardboard, the careful arrangement of the fern expresses this aesthetic appeal, with additional annotations that call attention to the different fronds of the plant. While the leaves sticking out from the shorter branch look like more traditional leaves, the frond that towers over it better exemplifies the namesake of the fern, with little bunches of golden pinna that resemble grapes. The visual allure of the plant, especially with the additional detail of its previous use as a piece of art, sparked Carranza and Goodrich’s interest in the artistic potential of their botanical specimens.

Photos courtesy of Alison Carranza ʼ23 and Garrett Goodrich ʼ23

As their discussion evolved to include other images they had worked with, the students discovered this significance in many of the other plants, allowing their scientific work to further branch out into a more artistic sphere. For example, Figure 4 features a golden chain tree (Laburnum x watereri) with beautiful yellow petals curling into a gentle spiral, and the aesthetic appeal of the sample intertwines with the scientific importance of the plant as a source of information for botanists.

Some of the other specimens elicited interesting responses from the respondents of the survey. Figure 12, a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) with leaves that curve into sharp points in four directions, divided participants in regards to the visual appeal of the plant.

Photos courtesy of Alison Carranza ʼ23 and Garrett Goodrich ʼ23

Scientists and artists alike shared a similar opinion of the fern (Polypodium virginianum) in Figure 7, ranking the plant highly. Many highlighted the beauty of the plant, with its highly detailed fronds and the gnarled roots at the bottom of the image, while some also commented on its significance to botany.

Meanwhile, responses to the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) of Figure 9 clashed with the expectations of the researchers. The results completely inverted their predictions; as the text accompanying the image explains, “[O]nly one of the seven scientific participants did not have negative comments about this specimen. Meanwhile, the art-related participants provided scientific logic in explaining why they had ranked it first, citing the representation of the ‘roots, stem, and other details clearly and plainly.’”

Despite the uniqueness of each specimen, the collection as a whole embodies an active conversation about the ways in which science meshes with art.

Even the nature of the exhibit itself, with its arrangement of the botanical images and the accompanying written texts, opened up a space for artists, scientists and others from various academic fields to continue exploring the interdisciplinary aspect of these images. At the opening reception, Goodrich observed the diverse ways in which attendants approached the pieces: “Scientists often started at the beginning, carefully reading our written components and treating the images much like figures in an academic presentation while artists were inclined to focus primarily on the images and refer to the text for commentary,” they commented through an email correspondence. 

This exhibition exemplifies a student-led effort to forge a space for interdisciplinary research. “[T]hese interdisciplinary intersections have the opportunity to be readily explored through the courses offered at Vassar, but sometimes the student has to take the extra step to really see an opening to incorporate multiple studies simultaneously into their research or projects,” Carranza commented. “I have found that professors have been really supportive of these interdisciplinary explorations, but you definitely have to put in the effort to bring in knowledge from one subject and apply it to the other either initially or to further explore it in class, as many don’t delve into it too much.”

Overall, Carranza and Goodrich’s exhibit, the final product of the research that has grown and flowered over the past several months, embraces an interdisciplinary approach that can appeal to people with diverse interests. This also leaves a lot of room for visitors to interpret and interact with the collection as they like.

“I think I’d be disappointed if everyone left our exhibition with the same, or even similar, conclusion and thoughts,” Goodrich reflected. “I hope that love for plants, art, and science all emerge in some way, but past that I think it’s really open. This project has always been an exploration for [Carranza] and me, so my ideal would be more people leaning into their unique academic and personal perspectives while engaging with these specimens.”

Carranza and Goodrich concluded, “We hope that these twelve digitized herbarium specimens can provide one the knowledge about the science of herbaria, the question regarding their artistic character, and consider what it means to evaluate them artistically and scientifically simultaneously.”

Vassar students, faculty and community members can continue exploring these overlapping themes from now until Dec. 12.

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