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Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration

Janaury 20 - May 5, 2024


Explore scientific illustrations from the Rare Book collection of the American Museum of Natural History’s Library in this fully bilingual exhibition.

Illustration has played an integral role in scientific discovery for centuries. Images were created in pursuit of scientific knowledge and to accompany important scientific works in disciplines ranging from astronomy to zoology. Travel back in time as you explore 40 striking scientific illustrations spanning five centuries and try your hand at scientific illustartion in Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration, a new exhibition displayed in The Museum’s World Cultures and Meinig Family Galleries.

The exhibition was inspired by the American Museum of Natural History publication, Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections, which highlights several gems from the American Museum of Natural History Library. It showcases reproductions of illustrations by celebrated artists Albrecht Dürer, Joseph Wolf, Moses Harris, and John Woodhouse Audubon, among others.

In the process of observing specimens, describing their structures, and working closely with illustrators or creating detailed illustrations themselves, naturalists including Charles Darwin, Marcus Elieser Bloch, and Maria Sibylla Merian cataloged new species, found similarities between species, and began to place them on the evolutionary tree. Illustrated books allowed the wider public to share in the excitement of discoveries, from Antarctica to the Amazon, from the largest life forms to the microscopic.

Today, scientists use many imaging technologies to conduct research: infrared photography, scanning electron microscopes, computed tomography (CT) scanners, and more. But, there is still a role for illustration. How else to depict animals that can’t be seen live, such as a fleshed-out dinosaur? Illustration is also used to clearly represent complex structures, color graduations, and other essential details, and is a true art form in its own right.

Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (amnh.org).




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