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Histoire Naturelle

Today’s post comes from Curtis Eckley, class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent.

Alfred Ronner Belgian, 1852-1901 The Botanist, ca 1875 Oil on canvas Gift of Rezin A. Wight 1880.2
Alfred Ronner, Belgian (1852-1901)
The Botanist, ca 1875
Oil on canvas, Gift of Rezin A. Wight

Last week’s “Artful Dodger” with Professor James F. Challey saw an exploration of the underlying intersections between science, technology and society within the Art Center’s exhibition Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project, and how these intersections inform us about Vassar College’s beginnings. In order to understand where Vassar College stood on these scientific paradigms in the mid-19th century, Professor Challey brought us all the way back to the 1600s, with the humble beginnings of analysis and natural history. In fact, the study of natural history really began out of the 17th-century “cabinets of curiosities” found throughout the homes of learned and well-traveled gentlemen, arranged in a similar fashion to the Mark Dion project. With the rise of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, 18th-century thinkers like Carl Linnaeus helped to form our basic understandings of the world around us by categorizing anything that could be categorized, and especially by classifying living organisms into genus and species. We find influence from taxonomy throughout the Mark Dion project, especially in the presence of taxidermy birds and mammals, jarred organisms, skeletal structures, pressed plants, and the careful arrangements of minerals. All these objects came from across campus, notably from the Anthropology, Biology, and Earth Science Departments.

It is from Linnaeus that the tradition of collecting to understand our world took off, and the study of natural history became based on real objects and sensory experiences (something Professor Challey calls “positive knowledge”). The impulse to name and classify is found across disciplines: just think about the careful organization of the elements in the periodic table. From this point in history forward, Challey notes that science truly became “democratic” as it rejected authority and superstition, and was now the basis for solid, reliable knowledge that anyone could participate in. One need only to look at the Art Center’s ca. 1875 painting The Botanist by Alfred Ronner on display in the Mark Dion installation to understand the widespread practice among women and men, scientists and amateurs alike, to collect and understand the world in the same fashion Mark Dion has collected to understand Vassar College. Challey notes that in this sense, the French term for “natural history” – histoire naturelle – is a much more accurate description for this area of study, since the French word histoire can also be translated as “story.” What scientists (and Mark Dion) create in their cabinets of curiosities are the stories of history and science that tell us all about the world in the past, present, and potentially the future, each piece coming with its own story, and its own place in the fabric of time.

It is with this thought in mind that the quantitative analysis of nature comes to fruition with the array of scientific tools present throughout the Mark Dion project. Scales, tools for detecting electric fields, “spheroids” that were used to measure angles, microscopes (developed in the 17th century), and crystallographic models all point to Vassar’s history, and the history of science. As Professor Challey laments the fact that the telescope of 19th-century professor of astronomy Maria Mitchell is on loan to the Smithsonian, we are reminded that this cabinet of curiosities informs us about the college’s founding as a liberal arts institution where all disciplines can be explored, from astronomy, to chemistry, to music, to art, or anthropology. These intersections offer us a detailed look into the early beginnings of science, and how to this day these disciplines are inseparable, and deserve their shared space on the cabinet shelf.

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