Working in “Edge” Spaces

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I recently listened to the July 2, 2018 episode of Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain, and was enthralled by his discussion with Cristina Pato, a Galician musician (a bagpiper and pianist, among other things). On its surface, this conversation didn’t seem particularly relevant to my research, but then Pato started to talk about something called “the edge effect.” In terms of ecology, “the edge effect” refers to what happens at the edge of one habitat and the beginning of another.

Although it might seem like such boundary zones should lie fallow, overwhelmed by the demands of diverging ecologies, they often actually feature biodiverse growth. As someone who works exclusively on interdisciplinary projects, I was not particularly surprised to hear that, in the natural world, new and interesting species emerge in these uniquely situated edge spaces.

The piece reminded me, in particular, of my work with Colleen O’Reilly, and of our trip to the Field Museum in Chicago during the summer of 2018. We are scholars on the periphery of our respective disciplines, conducting research in natural history museums that are full of boundary objects, so we seem to be both benefiting from, and actively contributing to, this so-called “edge effect.” 

As Colleen described in a recent interview, we find dioramas intriguing because of “their specific mixture of naturalistic representation and aesthetic strategies,” and the tension that occurs at the macro scale when “museums have to both create these visual experiences and also convey scientific information.”  

At the Field Museum, our discussions about the dioramas ranged from the insanely practical (how do you create a plaster cast of an aloe leaf?) to the scarily philosophical (why do you collect and mount these dead things to “create” the illusion of “nature”?). 

On our trip to Chicago, we had the opportunity to interview three individuals involved with the hyena diorama, a project funded through Indiegogo that generated quite a bit of excitement during its production phase and at its unveiling in 2016. Each of these interviews demonstrated the highly collaborative nature of the project, and revealed the combination of skills and experience necessary to execute such complex productions.

For me, dioramas are mind-boggling for a combination of reasons. Most notably, they are rather contradictory: the technical labor invested in them is often invisible to the viewer, yet the technology of the diorama is so conspicuous to us as twenty-first century consumers. Dioramas originally served the very practical function of providing a snapshot of a landscape that the average Chicagoan (or visitor from elsewhere) would likely never see in “real life” (just through a photograph, perhaps).  The visual trickery of the diorama could transport the visitor to a different space. At this point in history, however, we have access to vivid Planet Earth documentaries and the Natural Geographic’s Instagram profile, so have in some way “experienced” tigers in action before we step into a museum. And, air travel is more efficient and affordable these days. 

In their efforts to remain relevant, why don’t natural history museums emphasize the craftsmanship of the dioramas, and generate interest in how these objects inhabit a curious edge space between reality and fiction and at the boundary of art and science?

For example, Emily Graslie, creator of The Brain Scoop, spoke to us about the complicated processes involved in creating the sunrise in the hyena diorama:

we were able to figure out what [the constellations] would be for an exact moment in time and time of day based off this pretty wild software that they use at the Adler Planetarium…so they were able to pinpoint the date in time when the hyenas were collected to figure out where exactly the constellations would be, at what point on the horizon the sun would be coming up, etc.

This sort of precision could not be achieved by diorama artists working in the early twentieth century. The artists and technicians working in 2015 took advantage of modern approaches but also wanted to channel or pay homage to the early diorama artists, to capture something resembling their particular aura of authenticity. In Graslie’s words, “we should be making some conscious decisions to leverage the technologies that we have today…in order to convey an extra level of depth of complex information.”

This seems like a fruitful “edge space” to me, and one that would benefit from further discussion!