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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beautiful Bugs

As an intern working for the Smithsonian Institution Archives' Institutional History Division on the National Museum of Natural History's Centennial website (aka possibly the coolest internship project ever), I was able to meet a large cross section of the staff who are an essential part of helping the NMNH prepare for its Centennial celebration. As part of the celebration a number of Natural History staff members were nominated to have their stories and memories of life in the Museum captured on video to share with the public and save in the SIA for future generations. Tasked with filming these oral histories and podcasts I met Kris Helgen, one of the youngest mammal curators ever to work at the Museum, who let me hold a man-eating leopard skull; Dave Pawson, an echinoderm expert who showed me one of the oldest specimens in the Museum; Paul Pohwat, the collections manager in the mineralogy department, who pulled out a very sparkly, uncut diamond, Chip Clark, a photographer extraordinaire, who showed me his amazing work; and my personal favorite, George Venable, a scientific illustrator who manages to make bugs gorgeous.

I had the pleasure of meeting George Venable during the recording of his oral history interview. George came to the NMNH in 1971 and is an incredibly talented scientific illustrator, specializing in entomology. During a break in filming, I was elated to tell him that I was an art history major with a science background which matched his natural artistic talent and interest in science. This allowed us to click instantly. In the minutes we had before I started filming again, we poured over his illustrations discussing mediums, shadows, techniques, and how each was applied to different species. As we parted ways, George invited me to come take a tour of his baby: the Entomology Illustration Archives. I was all too happy to take him up on the offer.

The tour was a short one, as the Entomology Illustration Archives is relatively new and takes up only one room. It contains nearly 10,000 images, with the oldest dating to 1900. The newest additions are 3,500 mosquito illustrations from the Walter Reed Biological Unit. George pulled out his own drawings for me to look at, including some of the most detailed watercolors of Scarab beetles that I had ever seen. I didn't even know watercolor could do that!

As I geeked out over pretty bugs, he told me how the idea of an illustration archive first came to him. He and other illustrators would spend hours rendering a three dimensional object into a scientifically accurate two dimensional drawing only to have the illustration lost in the inevitable black hole of a researcher's files, never to be seen again. After finally getting funding, George and his small army of volunteers went around reclaiming lost entomology illustrations.

I learned that the main purpose of these illustrations is to capture information about a plant or animal, information that is often missing from the Museum's specimen, depict the scientifically important features of the organism being studied and describe that organism's natural environment. If the image achieves all of this, then it is a success. Beauty is just an added bonus.

Check out some of the NMNH's entomology illustrations here!

Image 1: My favorite by George Venable of a Beetle or Aspasiola esijhe Erwin, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive
Image 2: Beetle or Pelidnota punctata Linnaeus, by Francis H. Noyes, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive
Image 3: Beetle or Plusiotis gloriosa Leconte, by Francis H. Noyes, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive

Lauren Dare, Intern, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Institutional History Division

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