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Art & Science: Twins Separated at Birth?

As an art librarian, I was expecting to feel a little like a fish out of water at the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) Life and Literature conference held at the Field Museum in Chicago.  However, the intrinsic relationship between Art and Science was a recurring theme explored by over 120 attendees from across the globe who gathered to focus on the future of BHL.

Naturgeschichte in Bildern : mit erläuterndem Text / Von Professor Dr. Strack. Lief. 4. (Heft 33-56). Fische.
Düsseldorf :Arnz & Co.,[1819-1826]

Having scanned over 35 million pages (and counting) of scientific texts documenting life on earth, BHL is transforming how scientists do research.  Within these millions of pages are thousands of illustrations, which served as scientific documentation before the invention of photography.  Paging through these texts, it becomes clear that Art and Science have been inseparable from the beginning, each informing the other as they developed.  Serving as evidence, we find many rare botanical and zoological texts in art libraries, collected for artists and designers who look to nature for inspiration. Now artists can look to BHL in much the same way including new digital advantages such as access to more images from anywhere at anytime.  

BHL is working to make these images more discoverable, especially for non-science communities.  In the meantime, they have gathered thousands of illustrations at BioDivLibrary’s Photostream on Flickr.  Organisms can be browsed by Kingdom such as Birds, Fish, Mammals, etc.  


Now Art needs to join in this effort to help connect Art and Science in the world of digital scholarship.  From an Art History perspective, I have long been jealous of Science's ability to develop advanced research tools using the latest technologies, from electronic journals to online databases.  How can the Arts create similar resources, and why do they seem to trail behind?  

Aside from fund raising abilities and the importance society places on different areas of study, I attributed much of this discrepancy to the unique nature of each discipline.  The heavily visual and subjective nature of art can make it difficult to organize.  Artwork cannot be cataloged based on how many legs it has or weather or not it grows hair.  Art requires human interpretation, which is full of gray areas, which makes cataloging art difficult.  

Richard Pyle’s eye-opening talk explaining the complicated world of taxonomy, in a way a non-taxonomist can understand, made me realize how Art and Science actually share similar cataloging challenges.  I had mistakenly thought that life sciences had it easier when it came to organizing information because they have this great taxonomic system introduced by Linnaeus in 1735 that continues to be used by scientists today.   If only art history had such a system, maybe it too could transform research by creating a resource like BHL for art.  But after learning from Pyle how difficult it is to name a fish, identifying an art movement did not seem as daunting anymore!

When naming a fish, one must consider the whole history of names that came before it. As new discoveries are made, fish get named, renamed, and renamed again by different people throughout time.  Trying to keep track of all these names and their histories is an enormous challenge involving several global initiatives.  The Linnaean taxonomy that I was envious of quickly turned into a cataloging nightmare far worse than those caused by Library of Congress’ subject headings.  

I can no longer excuse Art from the world of advanced digital scholarship because it lacks a structured taxonomy, instead, I’m feeling relieved that it does not have one and like a hurdle I thought was there has been removed!

The BHL conference made it very clear that by creating stronger connections between Art and Science through linked data and other emerging technologies we can open new doors just as scientific illustrations paved the path for new discoveries centuries ago.


One Comment

  1. Nice piece. I love the topic of Art & Science and how it is evolving.

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